According to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, one in six children born in the United States is diagnosed with some kind of developmental disability. By definition, this could include anything from ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) to autism spectrum disorder to hearing and vision loss. A CDC study released in 2012, which examined information gleaned between 1997 and 2008, noted a 17 percent increase during that time in children with developmental disabilities. The result is that 10 million U.S. children (15 percent) currently are struggling with some type of developmental delay — or worse. With this increase, Catholic dioceses and parishes — and even publishers — increasingly have been looking for catechetical expertise, tools and resources to better serve this specialized population.
Catholic groups increasingly have been looking for catechetical expertise, tools and resources to better serve special-needs children.
The U.S. bishops laid the groundwork for this work back in 1978, when they published a statement on people with disabilities. A few years later, the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (In Focus, Pages 9-12) was formed to help parishes and dioceses implement the statement. The U.S. bishops provided another resource in 1995, with its “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities.” Nearly 36 years after the first document was published, parishes continue to work at implementing faith formation classes — including sacramental preparation — for special-needs children. Unfortunately, this hasn’t always been successful, and parents sometimes feel as if the Church is just one more place where they must advocate for their children. Some dioceses offer support at the chancery level. Others leave the parishes to develop their own programs. Some parishes offer no support at all. While reasons for this gap in services vary, they no doubt include the difficulty of training and even recruiting catechists, as well as the sheer magnitude of the ministry. Catechists knowledgeable in the field of special needs are even more difficult to recruit than catechists for abled children, and even well-established programs such as Special Religious Development and the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program cannot meet all needs in the wide-ranging category of “disability.”
Perhaps the biggest lingering concern for parents of special-needs children, however, has nothing to do with sacramental preparation, but rather simply with feeling welcomed in a parish environment. For many parents, attending Mass with their special-needs children can be one of the most difficult hours of the week. With shorter attention spans and often high anxiety, many children with autism or other developmental disorders have difficulty remaining quiet during the liturgy and as a result often are the recipients of frustrated looks or stares from fellow parishioners. At these times, the challenge for all is to remember the words of Jesus: “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
We are given no better example than that of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, who has made a point during his pontificate to embrace, literally, those with disabilities. Nothing could illustrate this love better than an image on a prayer card published by Our Sunday Visitor of Pope Francis embracing Dominic Gondreau, 8, who has cerebral palsy. While the photo was snapped last spring, it endures as a timeless reminder of Jesus’ words and of the responsibility of us all to open our arms to all of God’s children.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor