Catholic parents of physically and intellectually disabled children often miss out on so many milestones that parents of typically developing children take for granted. Thankfully, the reception of the sacraments doesn’t need to be one of those missed moments. According to the USCCB document Guidelines For the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities;
2. Catholics with disabilities have a right to participate in the sacraments as fully as other members of the local ecclesial community.3 “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”4
3. Parish sacramental celebrations should be accessible to persons with disabilities and open to their full, active, and conscious participation, according to their capacity. Pastoral ministers should not presume to know the needs of persons with disabilities, but should rather—before all else—consult with them or their advocates before making determinations about the accessibility of a parish’s facilities and the availability of its programs, policies, and ministries. Full accessibility should be the goal for every parish, and these adaptations are to be an ordinary part of the liturgical life of the parish.
Unfortunately, many parents and parishes are uncertain how to meet their children’s unique needs in regards to religious formation. Some dioceses and parishes have wonderful adaptive catechesis programs, others places have no idea how to proceed and so children are denied the opportunity to receive their sacraments.
Thankfully, author and illustrator Michele Chronister has created two valuable books, Taking the Lift to Heaven:The Pocket Guide to Adaptive Ministry in Your Catholic Parish and the Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis; Serving Those With Special Needs, that parents and parishes can use to help formulate a plan to meet the needs of any disabled child, or adult, who wishes to receive Holy Communion, Confirmation, and grow in their faith. Chronister is a wife and mother who received her Master’s Degree in theology at the University of Notre Dame, through the ECHO program for Catechetical Leadership. During that time she interned at a parish where she developed the Children of St. Angela Merici curriculum for children and adults with disabilities.
"My philosophy for catechesis [is that] every baptized person has a right to full, rich, accessible catechesis,” she said. “Catechesis should never be dumbed down or watered down, and just because someone is not able to express their beliefs verbally does not mean that they can not have the message of the Gospel and the Catholic faith nestled in their hearts. Along with that, I wanted to make sure that all parents and catechists of individuals with disabilities knew that their loved one, by virtue of their baptism, had a right to the remaining Sacraments of Initiation, and to Confession, when that is possible.”
Chronister has also created several picture books that beautifully illustrate the Catholic faith for children of all abilities.
“All of the picture books that I have published have been made with people of all ages with special needs in mind. One of my goals in any catechetical material that I produce is to have it be both rich (i.e. beautiful to look at and presenting the fullness of Catholic teaching) as well as accessible (not dumbed down at all, but presented in a way that people with a variety of abilities can understand it).”
Chronister’s materials stress that it’s not a matter of whether or not disabled children can or should receive the sacraments, but how to make the sacraments more accessible to them.
“My motivation is simple – to be another voice in the world affirming how important it is to make a place for all members of the Church, regardless of their abilities or disabilities,” she added. “We need the contribution that every member of the Church brings. Many think that it’s a matter of “letting” people who have disabilities participate in the Church in order to “help them.” But, it’s so much more than that – every single member of the baptized has an essential role to play in the Church, whether or not we see or understand that role. If we are not making the Church an accessible place for all of our baptized, we risk missing out on the unique gift that each person is called to give. I’m not saying that everyone’s role is as visible or active. Even when we look to the example of religious life, we can see that there is a value not only in the active, but also in the contemplative. It is important to nurture the call to a deep interior life, for all the baptized, because those called to that have a vital role to play in the Church.”
Chronister's Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis is a wonderful tool for parishes to learn how they can make their religious education programs more welcoming to children of all abilities, but the book can also help empower parents who are approaching their parish priest or DRE regarding accommodations for the first time. Chronister describes the steps needed for religious educators and parents to successfully accommodate children with all abilities either at the parish one attends, or how to combine forces with a larger parish that may already offer specialized instruction. For parents and parishes who are starting from scratch, Chronister give plenty of guidance for lesson planning, including how to convey key information on the faith to children who may be nonverbal or intellectually delayed, and she give examples of curriculum and how to create your own lesson plans when necessary.
According to Chronister, parents and catechists shouldn’t worry about using or creating the “ideal” special needs curriculum, and that meeting the needs of a disabled child with a less than perfect program is far better than ignoring that child’s spiritual needs altogether.
When working with a student with special needs, there is a tendency sometimes to water down content so that they can understand it, but this often deprives these students coming to know the fullness of the Catholic faith. When planning lessons or selecting a prepared curriculum for students with special needs, the question we need to ask is not, “What can they understand?” but rather, “How can I help them understand this?” The goal is always accessibility, not simplifying. - Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis
Chronister’s book, Taking the Lift to Heaven, builds upon the Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis and gives more specific examples to common questions Chronister heard while giving presentations to those who were interested in starting special needs ministries and catechesis programs at their parishes. It also talks about ways to continue the religious formation of disabled individuals after they’ve received the sacraments of initiation and perhaps even confession.
Chronister also reminds parents that religious instruction begins with our own example in the home. “My best advice is just to begin with yourself. What is your own faith life like? Do you take time in prayer to rest in the love that Jesus has for you, and to love him in return? Do you regularly receive the Eucharist, go to Confession, and spend time (even briefly!) in adoration? Is Scripture (even just the daily readings or a verse or two) a part of your daily routine? You cannot give what you don’t have, but also…your love and desire to know more about your faith will eventually rub off on your children. All parents struggle with this, regardless of whether or not their child has a disability. Remember that God does an awful lot in our kids’ hearts that we can’t see. Just because your child may not be acting happy or exciting about catechesis or Mass doesn’t mean that God is not working profound things in their heart,” she added. “My number one piece of advice? Pray with your child, every day, and bring them to Jesus in the tabernacle whenever you can. You can’t have a relationship with someone you never spend time with! Remember, with confidence – your child belongs in the Church, and has a vital role to play in the body of Christ. We may never know what that role is, as God accomplishes many things in silence. But, we may rest in confidence and hope, knowing that all members of the baptized belong and deserved to be loved and wanted in the Church.”
Visit our Books page for links to Chronister's books, as well as other books and curriculum designed to help in the religious instruction of special needs children.