Catechesis for persons with special needs

With the proper awareness and response on the part of all concerned, we can make small but important steps in the right direction.

Jun 15, 2024

Echoing the Faith - Dr Steven Selvaraju

In last month’s article, I shared my thoughts about the Catechesis for Learners with Special Needs. I also explained the importance of the community’s role in always being ready to welcome and accept differently abled persons in its midst. In this article, I wish to continue the discussion by examining the Church’s understanding of catechesis in relation to persons with Special Needs.

Deepening my awareness
Although I hold a Doctorate in Theology and specialise in the field of Catechetics, I have to admit that my knowledge and expertise in the area of Catechesis for Learners with Special Needs is lacking. In fact, there was no course on this subject throughout my entire studies in Rome, whether at the Master in Theology or doctoral level (1998 – 2003). It is only in setting up the Catechesis for Learners with Special Needs (CLSN) Ministry in the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur that I have started to learn more about this area from parents or caregivers with children with Special Needs and parish catechists supporting learners with Special Needs.

The Church deepens her awareness
In reading the Church’s catechetical documents, I realise that the Church’s understanding of catechesis or faith formation for learners with Special Needs is also evolving. This can be seen clearly in the three catechetical directories that were published by the Vatican in 1971 (General Catechetical Directory), 1997 (General Directory for Catechesis) and 2020 (Directory for Catechesis) respectively.

A change in the use of terms
For example, when referring to this area of catechesis, the ‘heading’ used by the respective directories are:

• 1971 directory: Children and Adolescents Not Adjusted to the Conditions of Life.
• 1997 directory: The Disabled and Handicapped.
• 2020 directory: Catechesis with Persons with Disabilities.

In the 2020 directory, two important aspects can be seen:

Catechesis is something we do with them
Firstly, it states “Catechesis with Persons with Disabilities” instead of “Catechesis for Persons with Disabilities”. It seems to denote that catechesis is not something we do for those with Special Needs but something we do with them. It also means that persons with Special Needs are not to be seen as passive or helpless recipients but rather, they are themselves active subjects of their own learning and formation. In other words, we do not teach learners with Special Needs. We only support their own learning.

We should adapt to their “condition”
Secondly, the Directory emphasises the term “persons” instead of using terms such as “the handicapped” or “the disabled”. It means that we have to recognise and give primary importance to the uniqueness and sacredness of the person rather than emphasise his or her condition or his or her inability to adapt to the normal conditions of life. It also means we should not expect those with disabilities to adapt to our conditions. Instead, we have to adapt to theirs.

Points for reflection and growth
There are six points from the 2020 Directory for Catechesis that can help us deepen our understanding of persons with Special Needs in the Church (DC, 269 – 272).

1. The Church’s concern for persons with disabilities finds its source in the incarnation of Christ. Just as God became flesh in order to share the life of humanity, God desires to share and make Himself present in the life of every person. This includes persons with Special Needs. They too are called to faith and to all that is good and meaningful.

2. We are not merely to take care of persons with disabilities but to recognise Christ who is present in them. It calls for us to be aware that it is possible to form persons with Special Needs, including those with very serious disabilities, in the faith because Christ lives in them.

3. The Church considers persons with disabilities are a growth opportunity for the community. They challenge us to welcome and accept diversity in our midst and to acknowledge that each person created by God is unique. They remind us that life is fragile and that suffering is part of the human condition. The Directory states: “Precisely because they are witnesses to the essential truths of human life, persons with disabilities must be welcomed as a great gift”.

4. Communities have to be open to receive and welcome the presence of persons with disabilities. We have to work “towards a culture of inclusion…”. In catechesis, new channels of communication and methods must be sought to help them encounter Jesus.

5. The community must be close to the parents of persons with disabilities, accompany and help them integrate into the community. The Directory states: “The openness to life of these families is a witness that deserves great respect and admiration”. In the present prevailing culture of death, it would certainly have been easy for many parents with children with disabilities to have given up hope or not to proceed with raising and caring for their children. But they have courage and faithfully done so. Truly, we have to respect and admire them, and more importantly, support them.

6. Persons with disabilities are called to the fullness of sacramental life, even in the presence of severe disorders. The sacraments are a gift from God. Therefore, “no one can refuse the sacraments to those with disabilities”. In addition, including them in the community and involving them in the liturgy is important.

These are key guidelines by the Church with regards to catechesis for persons with Special Needs. However, we have to become aware that every person with Special Needs is unique. Therefore, supporting him or her with catechesis and in the reception of the sacraments requires special attention and care. It also shows that there is so much that has to be done in this area and we still have a long way to go. But with the proper awareness and response on the part of all concerned, we can make small but important steps in the right direction.

(Dr Steven Selvaraju, STD, STL, holds a Doctorate in Theology with Specialisation in Catechetics and Youth Ministry from Pontifical Salesian University, Rome. He serves as Director of the Archdiocesan Catechetical Centre, Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.)

Total Comments:0