KATRA: Church doors and people’s hearts must be open to receive all

September 10, 2019

Long before being hired at the Archdiocese, I was a catechist at my parish. I’ve always shared that the catechetical leader who invited me to serve in this capacity did so because she knew that I not only had an education background, but more specifically, a degree to teach learners with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

I will always be grateful to her for that invitation and to the family that brought their son, who had Down syndrome, to church to learn about his faith.

I know that what came easy for me, adapting lessons and modifying requirements to meet his needs, does not come easily for most volunteer catechists. The majority of catechists do not have a formal teaching background and are even less likely to have been trained to teach diverse learners.

Our parishioners who serve tirelessly as catechists for the sole motivation of doing God’s work in the vineyard need those of us who have the ways and means to support them to do so. Teaching individuals who have Down syndrome, autism, etc., takes someone with a social justice heart. It also takes grace. Luckily, God provides the grace!

The one thing that has remained constant over all these years is that catechists still want and need training and resources to better serve individuals with disabilities. Truth is, so do those in leadership. Faith communities benefit, too, when they acquire information and best practices.

Today, we are blessed to have many parishes providing faith formation and sacramental preparation opportunities for diverse learners. I know because Church leadership regularly share their experiences, both successes and challenges, with me.

This fall, as a new catechetical year begins, we want to ensure that anyone interested in learning more about resources and strategies to serve the disability community better can obtain that helpful information.

One opportunity to do so will be at the Catechetical Fall Festival being held at St. Cyril Catholic Church on Saturday, Sept. 28. At this event, a new catechetical module will be offered that will focus on the human and spiritual development of persons with disabilities. There will also be a workshop offered on the recently revised U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Sacramental Guidelines for Persons with Disabilities.

We must never forget that people with disabilities have a baptismal right to be educated in their faith, live a sacramental life and respond to God’s call. The same baptismal rights of every Catholic. When individuals with disabilities and their families are involved in the full life of the Church and society, we are all the better for it. We need them more than they need us.

A beautiful movement forward for our entire local Church was the inaugural “sensory-friendly” Mass that was offered at St. Matthew the Evangelist Catholic Church recently. This was an experience that we can all be proud of.

In all simplicity and truth, the faith community of St. Matthew began with a pure desire to include persons who were missing. In this case, individuals for whom attending Mass can be somewhat difficult to extremely challenging. I encourage you to pause for a moment right now and reflect on who might be missing at your parish.

Has your church in recent months, or even years, spent any time considering this reality? Or is there an unspoken opinion being lived out that the people who happen to come and go from your campus are enough? Or might the Body of Christ be more fully represented or complete with a bit of intentionality?

All other preparation towards hosting this inaugural Mass happened because the parish leadership and the parishioners choose to extend the love of Christ to every person who walked, or rolled, into the church that evening. This Mass was attended by families from around the Archdiocese; as well as priests and deacons from other parishes. It was a teachable moment.

Those in attendance would have noticed some purposeful changes that were made within the Liturgy as well as the church environment to make it more welcoming and accessible. The lighting was lowered, and the music was quieter.

Large print missals, assistive listening devices and various sensory fidgets were available for use during Mass if needed. When we elect to adapt in such ways to accommodate the needs of others, it is an act of genuine hospitality as well as evangelization.

If you, or someone you know, desire to learn more about this specialized ministry, there is a newly published book available from Loyola Press, titled “The Adaptive Teacher: Faith-Based Strategies to Reach and Teach Learners with Disabilities.”

For additional information, visit https://bit.ly/2LJRl47. It was a great honor to co-author this book with my friend and ministerial colleague, John Barone, who serves as the resource director at Strake Jesuit College Preparatory.

Between us, decades of combined experience went into this book to provide a practical and easy to read resource to support the teaching ministries of the Church in preaching the “Good News” to all people. 

Charleen Katra is an associate director with the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.