David Amico was a member of St. James (now St. Francis of Assisi) Parish in Albany, N.Y., and working for the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis years ago when the family of a special-needs child called him and asked if his parish could do anything to help catechize their son. The young boy was living at St. Margaret’s Center in Albany, a facility established as an “Episcopal foundling hospital” 125 years ago but now falls under the control of the Center for Disability Services.
That one phone call set in motion a string of events that still play out large in Amico’s life. He soon came to realize that more than half the residents at St. Mary’s Center were Catholic.
“They were ours, and we were not reaching out to them,” he said. “Not only did we catechize this young boy and get him the sacraments, but the parish got involved.”
And Amico got involved in a deeply personal way. A social worker at the center informed him that a number of residents needed legal guardians, so 10 years ago he became the legal guardian for Tony, who had been abandoned by his parents when he was only 8 months old. He was listed as Catholic but had no records of ever having been baptized or catechized in any way.
Tony, 28, has multiple disabilities, including Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. He doesn’t have any “meaningful” use of his extremities and is “totally non-verbal,” Amico told Our Sunday Visitor, putting Tony’s developmental age at about 18 months.
|Tony is shown with Bishop
Howard Hubbard and his adopted grandparents. Courtesy photo
“He’s a great guy. He has a wonderful laugh, and he’s playful and engaged. It’s been a wonderful experience for myself and my parents,” he said. And thanks to Amico’s advocacy and hard work, Tony was baptized and confirmed by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany. He has not received First Communion because he is tube-fed and practical concerns must be worked out before that can happen. But it can happen and should happen, as far as Amico is concerned.
“Understanding is not just a cognitive thing. It’s a whole-person thing. It’s much more a heart thing than a head thing,” he explained, addressing concerns that perhaps children with special needs are not aware enough to receive the sacraments.
He recalled a young girl with autism whose parents wanted her to receive the Eucharist. He helped come up with a plan based on how this girl learned best — through music and through blankets. The ladies of the parish made the girl a quilt with religious symbols on it. Two years into her faith formation, her parents felt she was ready to receive her First Communion. Amico went into the parish church with the girl, who looked up at the altar and started singing, “Jesus, Lamb of God.”
“If anyone was ready, she was. She could not articulate it the way you or I would, but she was ready,” he said. “Understanding is expressed in different ways.”
Amico, who is now a member of St. Michael Parish in Troy, N.Y., and director of lay ministry formation for the Diocese of Albany, said the greatest challenges for parents and guardians of children with special needs is finding a way to meaningfully include children of various disabilities in parish faith-formation programs, with children on the autism spectrum presenting the newest and biggest challenges.
It comes down to partnership — between the family and their parish, between the parish and whatever setting the child is in for education, he said. That is where the parish can best learn how to reach a child. Some will do better in small groups; others will do better one-on-one.
“Forming a partnership and building trust is one of the biggest challenges,” Amico said. “It takes time and effort; there’s no two ways around it.”
As someone who has witnessed and experienced the challenges from both sides of the equation, Amico stresses that the most important thing parishes can do is to “put it out there” and let parents know that special religious education is available.
In days gone by, he said, strong Catholic families fought for what their children needed in order to be catechized, but today, when many parents aren’t even in church every weekend, there are concerns these children will slip through the cracks simply because families don’t know what’s available to them.
“The Church needs to say when they advertise for religious education: ‘All are welcome,’” he said. “Please don’t make these parents fight for the sacraments or faith formation for their children. They have to fight for everything else. This should be one place where this doesn’t happen.”