Conference educates Church in serving people with disabilities

November 22, 2016

The day before the “Human Dignity: Created in God’s Image,” conference, St. Laurence Catholic School in Sugar Land held their annual luncheon for the school’s program Special People In Catholic Education (SPICE) where some of the students had the opportunity to sing to attendees. An all-inclusive academic program to support the education of children with special needs in their community, SPICE offers students with special needs the appropriate resources, accommodations and modifications to ensure their needs are met in an inclusive environment to the Catholic faith. Photo courtesy of St. Laurence Catholic School in Sugar Land.

HOUSTON — Ensuring that people with disabilities and their family members know that the Church is here to support and love them for their entire Catholic life was a key focus of “Human Dignity: Created in God’s Image,” a one-day conference for parish staff and volunteers and for family members and caregivers of children and adults with disabilities.

On Saturday, Nov. 12, almost 200 people gathered at University of St. Thomas (UST) for the conference sponsored by the Ministry with Persons with Disabilities of the Archdiocese and the university’s Donald S. Nesti, CSSp Center for Faith and Culture.

“Families (of people with disabilities) can feel very isolated in the world, and even worse, in faith communities,” said Charleen Katra, associate director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis. “This conference provided an opportunity for them to gain information about current attitudes, best practices and resources recommended by the Church to put flesh on the Gospel values we profess: that we are one Body with one Shepherd.” 

Katra said parishes face many challenges, the biggest ones being the lack of awareness that persons with disabilities are in their faith communities and the knowledge of how to serve them.

“Accessibility issues are broader than ramps and restrooms. It’s also about access to Sacraments, ongoing faith formation, assisted listening devices, etc., so that everyone feels at home and able to successfully be included in the full life of the Church,” she said. “It can be challenging but it is worth it. We need persons with disabilities more than they need us. God uses them to soften hearts; conversion happens when we create environments where we are together; making the Body of Christ complete.”

The day began with simultaneous keynote addresses (one in English, the other in Spanish) from David Rizzo, the author of “Faith, Family and Children with Special Needs,” and co-author of “Spiritually Able,” a parent of a child with autism, and a strong advocate for inclusion of people with disabilities in the Church; and Father Dempsy Rosales-Acosta, associate professor of Theology for UST. 

During his address, Rizzo said that everyone has a responsibility and to ensure that all are included in full communion of the Sacraments, which at times includes Matrimony and Holy Orders. 

“We are called to recognize the image and likeness of God in all, which includes finding ways to translate the mysteries of the Church entrusted upon us and we must make them accessible to persons with all disabilities,” he said. 

“Our culture is afraid of people whose behavior is different, whose behavior may violate socially acceptable norms. This fear runs deep and can poison and contaminate... We’re so afraid of the wound that we can’t bear to look, much less ask how we can help.”

Rizzo said the conference is a chance to make changes in people’s perception.

“When we move beyond our fear, we can replace it with love,” he said. “We can relate in a deep, passionate way.”

The day included a number of small group sessions offered in both English and Spanish which varied from ministering to people with disabilities and their families, to the challenges and unexpected blessings of a special needs parent. The panels also included inspirational stories from a panel of individuals with disabilities and caregivers as well as provide resources and opportunities to share ideas and create conversations.
“For clergy and parish staff, this conference provided a much needed awareness of the needs of the disability community in our faith communities,” Katra said. 

She said she hopes that family members and caregivers left with the knowledge that the Church values the gifts and abilities of all baptized Catholics.

“That we want their sacramental life and Catholic identity to be affirmed equally and with great love for every member of their family and we’re willing to do what it takes to make that truly possible,” Katra said.