When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” -Mark 2:1-5
As the number of children diagnosed with cognitive disabilities continues to increase, families, schools and churches are called to learn and develop new ways of engaging persons with disabilities where they are and to welcome them into the Church as they are. We have the opportunity to be like those who brought the paralytic to Jesus. We’re called to “open the roof” and make a path to Jesus for all who seek him. We can achieve this with a spirit of innovation and docility to the Holy Spirit (Unleash the Gospel, 3.4). Consider these two scenarios that one family experienced when trying to have their son with autism attend Faith Formation.
Scenario 1: I was told that I would need to sit with my son through every class and “make sure he’s not too disruptive.” I made sure my youngest child at the time was cared for and attended class with my son each week. We struggled through three weeks of classes filled with worksheets and activities that he was incapable of comprehending before we finally called it quits.
Scenario 2: A parish had a program that better fit my child’s needs. He thrived in an atrium with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and was able to participate without me being in the class. He was welcomed with open arms. When he needed additional support, a volunteer aide helped in his classroom.
Which scenario best modeled the four men bringing the paralytic to Jesus? Over the years, the Church has made great strides through inclusive and accommodating practices to make parish life more accessible to all. There is still much that can be done.
This is true not only because the Church’s deepest identity and purpose is to evangelize (Evangelii nuntiandi, 14), but also because we recognize that “Disabled individuals bring with them a special insight into the meaning of life, for they live — more than the rest of us, perhaps — in the shadow of the cross … they forge virtues such as courage, patience, perseverance, compassion, and sensitivity that should serve as an inspiration to all Christians.” Our mission in ministry to persons with disabilities is not simply answering the question of what the Church can do for these individuals and their families, but also recognizing and appreciating what they have to offer the Church.
In order to best serve families and individuals with disabilities, we must first enter into relationship with them, build trust and understand their gifts and their needs. From there we can not only appreciate what they have to give to the Church but also make accommodations for them that are effective and meaningful. This can be as simple as greeting a family at Mass you don’t know and inviting them to sit with you at coffee and donuts. It can be as involved as providing adaptive discipleship formation opportunities that families give input and feedback on as you create.
The best way to build relationships and learn more about the needs in our community may vary from parish to parish. Learn where to start or go deeper in what you already offer by attending the upcoming conference, All are Welcome: Building an Inclusive Community for Persons with Disabilities on Friday, August 5th from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.. The event is free to attend and will include formation, practical tips, resources and networking opportunities for parish and school staff, clergy and lay ministers. This conference is one way that your parish community can begin to “open the roof” for families and individuals with special needs. Be sure to register by July 29th.
If you’re ready to take the next step, before you come to the conference check out the resources below.
· All Belong: Inclusion in Ministry - Free online course from the Archdiocese of Detroit
· LAMB Inclusive Participation Assessment Tool – A tool for assessing church accessibility
· Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities – An online course from the National Catholic Partnership on Disability
· Loyola Press – Adaptive catechesis and sacramental preparation materials
· Rose Fitzgerald Kenney Program – Religious Education for children and adults with intellectual disabilities