Welcoming ‘special’ persons in our midst

God has sent some wonderful and dedicated people who volunteer their time and talents to collaborate with the Archdiocesan Catechetical Centre in this task.

May 17, 2024

It began with a phone call that I received in early 2022. It was from the mother of an autistic child. She wanted my advice on how she could effectively catechise her son at home. As the conversation progressed, she began to share the difficulties she faced in bringing her son to church for Mass. She often sensed that she and her family were not ‘welcomed’ because people would stare at them or showed their displeasure when her son unintentionally made ‘strange noises’ or displayed what is perceived as ‘odd’ behaviour.

As a result, as much as she wanted to, she became more and more reluctant to bring her son to church. She took the initiative to catechise him at home by preparing her own lessons and doing her best to give him the faith formation he needed. Deep down, she wanted for her son to know Christ and to be part of the Church. Desiree, the mother of the child who called me, also volunteered to help me set up a ministry that will look into supporting learners with Special Needs.

Setting up the Catechesis for Special Needs Learners Ministry
In June 2022, the ‘Catechesis for Learners with Special Needs Ministry’ (CLSN) was established. It is a sub-ministry of the KL Archdiocesan Catechetical Ministry. The CLSN’s key objectives are:

1) to provide a platform for catechists supporting learners with Special Needs (children and teenagers) to meet and exchange experiences and resources;

2) organise formation programmes for catechists; and

3) assist parents and caregivers prepare learners with Special Needs to receive the sacraments, especially First Holy Communion. This also includes helping the children understand the meaning of the Holy Mass and the importance of participating in the celebration.

Since then, God has sent some wonderful and dedicated people who volunteer their time and talents to collaborate with the Archdiocesan Catechetical Centre in this task. They include parish catechists and parents with Special Needs children and others. So far, we have held a number of formation programmes, organised a forum to create more awareness about learners with Special Needs and prepared relevant catechetical materials and resources. However, there is only so much that we can do. There is a need for the community to get involved.

The community has to be involved
Why is the community’s involvement so important? It is because our faith is not a personal or individualistic faith. It is a communal faith. No one can be a Christian alone. The moment we are baptised, we immediately become part of the community. We become a member of the Body of Christ. Since our faith is communal in nature, any form of catechesis, including catechesis for learners with Special Needs, cannot happen apart from the community. It has to be done with and by the community.

While faith is initially learnt at home, it is also within the parish community that catechesis takes place. In the parish, the Catholic faith is learnt not so much from the textbook or in the classroom but by the way the members of the community, especially adults, worship and pray, interact and relate with one another, share the faith and serve others. In the same way, the significance of the Holy Mass is learnt and appreciated by our children and teenagers by the way we participate in the celebration as community.

Since children learn mostly from what they sense and observe around them, they learn about the faith mainly by ‘absorbing’ the words and actions of the older members of the community. Whether we know it or not, every member of the community is like a ‘living’ textbook to a child. And the manner in which the members of the community exercise their faith life and mission serves as the ‘living’ syllabus or curriculum of faith formation to our children and teenagers.

They rightfully belong to the community
Therefore, how can we expect our children, more especially those with Special Needs, to be truly formed in the faith of the Church, learn about what it means to belong to the Christian community and learn to serve others in the community if they are not made to feel part of that same community? After all, it is a community to which they rightfully belong by virtue of their baptism. Baptism, the door to all other sacraments, makes everyone an equal member of the Church. How can they truly experience the Mass if they do not feel welcomed or included in the celebration by the community?

This is why the plea to be made more welcomed and included in the Church, especially at Mass, by parents like Desiree, and caregivers of individuals with Special Needs, has to be heard and responded to. Awareness has to be raised among Catholics and efforts be made to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment where differently-abled persons can have a sense of belonging in the parish. As the Directory for Catechesis (2020) states: The Directory also points out that, “Communities have to be open to receive and welcome presence of persons with disabilities, including in the area of catechesis. We have to work “towards a culture of inclusion…” (DC, 270).

In the past, I would be unhappy or displeased if a child misbehaved during Mass. I would glance at the parents and think, “Why can’t they control their child?” Thanks to my CLSN team members, I have learnt not to judge so quickly these days. I am beginning to believe that God sends persons with Special Needs into our midst to help us become more patient, understanding and caring. In a way, I am taking “small steps” in my journey to becoming further aware of differently-abled persons around me, and to do my part to make them feel welcomed. Perhaps, you too may wish to make this journey!

If you have queries about Catechesis for children or teenagers with Special Needs, write to me at: [email protected]

The key ideas in the article are presented a simple illustrated format below. The illustrations are my own.

(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.)

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