March 2, 2015

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Catholics with Special Needs


Two women contacted the Director of Religious Education at St. Bonaventure, wondering if the Huntington Beach parish would be able to prepare a little girl—the daughter of one woman and the granddaughter of the other—for First Communion.

This is, of course, precisely what the Office of Religious Education does—prepare children to receive the sacraments. But there was an extra challenge in this situation: the little girl in question had autism.

“We had nothing in place,” recalls recently-retired DRE Laraine Soule, who was working closely with the then-director. “But [the DRE] was very open to saying, ‘Let’s see how we could make this work.’”

The first step was to make a pulpit call to parishioners with expertise in working with children with special needs. Once that group formed, they gathered to brainstorm ways to catechize children with special needs. After formulating a plan, staff put out another pulpit call, asking for experts in the field to volunteer as catechists.

That was 10 years ago. Over the ensuing decade, the St. Bonaventure program has grown—and so has its reputation. For many years, Religious Education staff at other parishes contacted St. Bonaventure to get tips on starting their own program.

Now the Diocese of Orange is home to seven sites offering faith formation for Catholics with special needs (see box)—and the programs are so well-run that many also include non-Catholics whose faith communities do not offer similar programs. (This is in addition to the Catholic Deaf Community, which has been active in the diocese for many years.) More recently, the diocesan Office of Faith Formation has developed the Special Needs Advisory Circle to help existing programs to share resources, and to facilitate communication between those programs and potential programs that have not yet launched at other parishes.

“That’s the greatest gift from the Circle,” says diocesan liaison Annette Venegas. “There is greater communication between ministries across the diocese, and more opportunities for ministries to learn from each other.”

Comprising clinicians, specialists, catechetical ministers, and parents, the Advisory Circle meets four times a year to ensure that its mission is on track: inclusion of all the baptized into the faith community. The formation of the Advisory Circle was part of the Diocese of Orange Catechetical Plan, which was released earlier this year; future goals include formulating and disseminating new diocesan guidelines for parish ministry to people with special needs, and continuing development of programs for Catholics with special needs—both children and adults, though the ideal is to ensure that each of the diocese’s regional deaneries has a sacramental preparation program for children and a separate one for adults. (Currently, there are five locations offering faith formation for children with special needs, and two offering faith formation and socialization for adults with special needs.)

“[These ministries] are re-emerging from the grass roots, from the people of God themselves,” says Becky Davis, coordinator of Pastoral Care Ministry at Holy Family Cathedral, where the Cathedral Coffee House is a ministry for adults with developmental challenges. The Advisory Circle can offer training to those hoping to launch a ministry; more programs mean parents don’t have to drive such great distances.

Not that these families are opposed to traveling to obtain the services their children need. Andrea West, who directs the special needs program at St. Juliana in Fullerton (the program recently moved from St. Joseph in Placentia), points out that her students come from as far away as Lake Forest. She teaches a similar class in Norco, in the Diocese of San Bernardino; students travel from as far away as Riverside and San Bernardino to attend.

It’s not only students who benefit when a parish offers programming for Catholics with special needs; their parents gain a great deal, too. It’s not unusual for parents of children with special needs to step back from parish life—concerned, for instance, that their child’s behavior may be disruptive during the Mass. At St. John Neumann, one family confided in Kellie De Leo, Director of Faith Formation for Children, that it made them uncomfortable when other parishioners looked at them as though dismayed that they were not controlling their rowdy child. De Leo advised the family to ignore those parishioners, who clearly didn’t understand the situation.

“It means so much to these families to have these programs,” she says simply. Her class has included students with a broad spectrum of diagnoses, from cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome to Fragile X Syndrome to autism.

“Everyone’s invited, and they all come, and it’s awesome,” she says.

Students—who range from age 6 to 20—continue to attend class even after they’ve made their sacraments; some have been taught by West the entire 10 years she’s led the class. “For families that fight for everything they get—inclusion, to be accepted—it’s just nice there’s a place that they want to be, and they can be, and they want to come back,” she says.

“The parish is aware now what we’re doing; people are becoming more aware that we do have special needs families here,” she says. “As we talk about it more and more in our parish, it’s going to become part of our life.”

Serving Catholics with special needs can also stretch parish priests in their ministry. It is a challenge, for instance, to “hear” the First Confession of a child who is nonverbal. And in mainstreamed classes, children without special needs are demonstrating great understanding of their classmates with autism and other diagnoses.

At St. Bonaventure, class for children with special needs is held Sunday morning, during one of the Masses. Families enter the church together, and sit in the front two pews near the side door. After the introductory prayers, teachers walk the students to the classroom, leaving the rest of the family at Mass. Shortly before the end of Mass, teachers accompany the students back into the church to re-join their families.

Soule arranged for children in this class to make their First Communions during the Saturday Mass at 8 a.m.—allowing them to celebrate with their faith community, but on a smaller, quieter scale than a Sunday Mass, which was an important consideration for these students. “Now it’s become a tradition; this Saturday morning Mass community knows once a year these children will making their First Communion,” she says.

“We are dedicated to helping each and every child recognize their individual faith potential,” says De Leo, speaking of St. John Neumann’s program but echoing what others in this ministry say.

“We’re all one body in Christ, and we should be carrying that out.”

For information about the Special Needs Advisory Circle, contact Annette Venegas.

PHOTO Reece Roberts, 7, who has Down syndrome, smiles in an undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Reece’s Rainbow)

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