Today at Bellator Society, it is our joy to offer this blog post by Kathy Watson as she explores the challenges of a being the parent of a special needs child in the Church. For more encouragement on the subject of welcoming and appreciating the precious and imperfect among us into our communities of faith, we suggest Doug Tooke’s “The Perfection of Imperfection” Talk in the OSV Talks series. His talk will inspire you.
As the Body of Christ, we need the beautiful witness of those brothers and sisters in Christ who show us through the testament of their lives that God’s power and glory are truly revealed in each of our imperfections, challenges, and brokenness.
“People with intellectual disabilities live the relationship of God with the immediacy of their situation and it is necessary and dignified to accompany them in the life of faith.” – newly revised, Directory for Catechesis (2020)
When the Vatican released new guidelines recently (June 2020) highlighting the importance of making the sacraments available to those with disabilities, I cried.
As the parent of a special needs child it was a message I needed to hear. Not because of a lack of kindness from our local church leaders, but because of the mental walls I had regarding what is possible for my youngest son.
My family is accustomed to hearing the word “no.”
We’ve been kicked out and denied access to many services over the years – daycares, music programs, counselors, you name it. We’ve had many uncomfortable conversations letting us know that something was not the right fit for our son. Although it always stings, my son’s challenges are real and I rarely disagree with the news (except for the music instructor who said we should try drums instead of singing. She missed out on hearing his beautiful voice).
My son has a double-whammy diagnosis of being both intellectually disabled and deep on the Autism spectrum.
However, the general mission of raising a child is the same. We are like every family who works to find the best fit for our child. What are his skills and interests? Where will he thrive? What does he need to become his best?
The difference for us is that the options are usually very limited and after a while all of those “no’s” have an emotional and psychological impact. It is hard to stay in that positive zone of possibility. Eventually, you find yourself backing down before you try and saying, “We just can’t.” We just can’t because it will end poorly. We just can’t because we are exhausted. We just can’t because it will be too difficult for our son.
At the pinnacle of my family’s “we just can’t” is our effort to provide our son with access to the Sacraments.
Since birth, his religious education has been at home with the occasional visit to a special needs program at a non-Catholic church and, gratefully, in the homes of our friends who meet regularly to pray the Rosary. His visits to our parish church have been rare and short.
He was baptized as an infant, but severe sensory and behavioral issues make regular Mass impossible and he cannot handle the setting of a traditional class for kids to prepare for First Communion. I hear about parishes in other parts of the country with sensory Masses and other dedicated resources for people with special needs and I am extremely jealous. None of our local parishes have big programs like these, so over the years I convinced myself that “we just can’t.” Even when the leader of religious education at our church offered to work with us one-on-one, the weight of being a special needs parent came out of my mouth and I said, “We just can’t.”
Despite my exhausted response, I know my son is a very spiritual guy. He loves to pray with our family every night. If he is in a comfortable and familiar setting, he can participate in the Rosary and he loves to sing. It is clear from the joy on his face that he knows how much God loves him and that he loves God. It is a faith driven by pure love and joy.
When Pope Francis issued those instructions in June, I felt both heard and challenged.
That was not just an order to church leadership, it was a vote of confidence for those of us who have lost hope due to the circumstances of our lives. It is very clear that the doors to the sacraments are open to my son and that the hurdle I need to overcome is probably not a “no” coming from church leaders but from the voice in my head. Now, I pray that families like mine throughout the world will also hear the message and understand the blessing that our children will bring to the Church.
“The community that knows how to discover the beauty and joy of the faith of which these brothers are capable becomes richer.” Directory for Catechesis 2020