A New Chapter in Catechesis for Persons with Disabilities, by Christy Wilkens
In late June 2020, the Vatican released a new General Directory for Catechesis
(available for purchase from the USCCB). The document addresses catechesis in the
Church as a whole, from philosophical underpinnings to practical implementation,
providing pastoral guidelines as well as a beautiful discussion on the relationship
between catechesis and evangelization.
But today, let’s focus on one great gift of this document: Chapter VIII Section 6,
Catechesis in the Lives of Persons with Disabilities. It’s only four paragraphs long, but it
is POWERFUL. Every word counts, and (almost) every word is an affirmation of the
goodness and dignity of every human person. Let’s unpack it together, shall we?
In the first paragraph of this section (269), the Directory reaffirms the dignity of every
human person and the preferential option of Christians to care for the most vulnerable,
pointing out that we must “recognize the presence of Jesus who in a special way
manifests himself in [persons with disabilities].” Importantly, the authors point out what
they call a “two-fold mission” regarding catechesis and the disabled: to educate them,
yes, but also to acknowledge that they can be “active subjects” — evangelists and
catechists themselves, not just passive recipients. A strong call is made to resist the
throwaway culture of death, the modern willingness to deny that we are all vulnerable
and that humans are not a utilitarian resource.
Paragraph 270 contains both my favorite and least favorite passages. It notes that
“persons with disabilities are a growth opportunity” for the Church, a phrase that
unfortunately echoes the corporate, mechanistic mindset of our wider society. People
are never, ever “growth opportunities.” But this misstep is surmounted by the second
half of the paragraph, a passage so rich in beauty, truth, and goodness that it bears
quoting in full:
Precisely because they are witnesses to the essential truths of human life, persons with disabilities must be welcomed as a great gift. The community, enriched by their presence, becomes more aware of the salvific mystery of the cross of Christ and, in living reciprocal relationships of welcoming and solidarity, becomes a source of good in life and a reminder for the world. Catechesis is therefore to help the baptized to interpret the mystery of human suffering in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.
If there exists a more powerful summary of the crucial, life-giving role of persons
with disabilities in the mission of the Church, I’d sure like to see it.
The next paragraph, 271, is a nuts-and-bolts argument for the necessity of
inclusion in parishes, providing concrete avenues for doing it better. It calls for
new communication channels and methods; reliance on all five senses; and
specific catechist formation for working with persons with disabilities. Perhaps
most importantly, the Directory notes that persons’ families should be involved
and, in fact, explicitly accompanied on their often-difficult journeys, remarking on
the profound witness of these families’ “openness to life.” (I feel seen.)
Finally, paragraph 272 lowers the proverbial hammer, mincing no words: “no
one can refuse the sacraments to persons with disabilities.” Since the goal
of catechesis is to bring a person into ever more intimate and more perfect union
with Christ — and the sacraments are the most important means to that most
important end — the impact of this one sentence cannot be overstated. Even the
presence of “severe disorders” cannot disqualify someone from the sacramental
life. Given the spate of recent news stories about Communion being denied to
autistic children, for example (to say nothing of numerous private discussions
with frustrated Catholic parents whose children are denied access, implicitly or
explicitly, to quality catechesis), this is a welcome pronouncement indeed.
Beyond that, this final paragraph urges us to consider persons with disabilities
not just as recipients of that sacramental life, but as “participants in
evangelization.” I know the impact our own son has had on bolstering the faith of
everyone around him (me included), despite his profound and multiple