Special opportunities: How ministers are bringing the Church to Catholics with disabilities
When Jason Whitehead worked as an autism therapist with children, a common concern voiced by parents involved church attendance. It was an “across the board issue” affecting both Protestants and Catholics.
“You’re expected to have your ‘stuff ’ together when you’re going into church,” said the diocesan director of faith formation, referring to the unspoken demand for quiet, motionless children. “If your child has a particular developmental delay, church can be quite troublesome.”
Feeling unwelcome and conspicuous, families with a disabled child often stay home from Mass. That’s not what the Catholic Church and its American bishops want.
In the “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) acknowledges the gifts and needs of the disabled while also advocating for their active participation in the sacramental life of the Church.
“It is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities, since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together,” states the revised 2017 document. “To exclude members of the parish from these celebrations of the life of the Church, even by passive omission, is to deny the reality of that community.”
The issue of accessibility, addressed by the bishops, goes beyond installing ramps and removing barriers for the physically handicapped. It also advances the case for catechetical and religious programs needed to prepare the mentally disabled for the sacraments.
The document lays down a number of general principles for all dioceses and parishes and goes into detail regarding the different sacraments. An immediate goal in the Diocese of Fort Worth is to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding the guidelines, explained Whitehead, who also serves as the special religious education coordinator.
“There has been a misconception that because a person has special needs, there’s no possible way they can understand, therefore, they can’t have the sacraments,” he continued. “The bishops made it clear that is an unacceptable response. People with disabilities of all ages have the right to be formed and receive the sacraments.”
Working towards that end, the diocese will offer quarterly workshop opportunities organized as hands-on training sessions, in addition to a central diocesan special needs conference hosted each year. Whitehead believes the diocese is ready to recruit mental health professionals to train intervention teams who will work with parish catechists assigned specifically to the disabled.
Educating people about the types and degrees of autism, Down syndrome, or other impairments and training them to effectively minister to parishioners is a targeted objective.
“Those who are called to be catechists to people with special needs must be trained on the different techniques that will make their ministry effective,” Whitehead said. “That’s the major move we’re taking right now.”
A special needs liaison between the diocese and parishes, the director provides continual oversight, resources, and materials, as well as advice whenever a situation arises.
“My mission is to make sure special needs ministry is no longer peripheral and receives the same attention as classical catechesis,” he said.
He cites Faces and Hearts of Christ — an apostolate serving adults with intellectual impairment — and the recently announced Our Mother of Perpetual Help educational program for disabled youngsters, as evidence of the strides the diocese is making.
“We’re hoping and praying for increased awareness and growth of both programs,” he said. “They provide a needed ministry.”
FACES AND HEARTS OF CHRIST
What’s the best part about being Catholic? Skip Rawley’s answer reveals a heart for ministry.
“I like sharing my faith with people,” said the longtime St. Mark parishioner. “It’s a precious gift and every person who is Catholic should appreciate that every day.”
Rawley was born with Mosaic Down syndrome — a genetic disorder affecting the way a person learns and reasons — but that hasn’t stopped him from studying his faith and becoming involved in parish activities.
Employed at St. Mark where he works in data entry, the 4th Degree Knight of Columbus admits reading “slowly, one paragraph at a time” the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and with good reason. The burgeoning catechist shares what he learns with other members of Faces and Hearts of Christ — a new ministry designed specifically for adults with cognitive impairment. Launched in 2017 by Marjorie Looney and Nada Boerner at Immaculate Conception Parish in Denton, the ministry offers biannual retreats, ongoing fellowship through monthly Bible study/dinner club gatherings, and sacramental preparation guidance.
The one-day retreats are geared for adults who don’t have the physical or mental stamina for a three-day ACTS retreat but could still benefit from experiencing God in a personal and communal way.
“We cater to the moderately mentally challenged,” said Boerner, a retired special education teacher. “Some of our special needs adults have Down syndrome or autism. We also have people whose mental capacity was affected by strokes or Alzheimer’s.”
HOW GOD SEES US
With approval from the diocese and Immaculate Conception Pastor Father Tim Thompson, the founders crafted an experience that focuses on prayer in the morning and a thought-provoking theme in the afternoon. More than two dozen faith mentors, who work with the disabled or have a family member with specials needs, are part of the ministry and come from St. Mark and St. John Paul II parishes, as well as Immaculate Conception.
“In the morning we talk about how God sees us and why He made us in His image,” Boerner explained, adding that the retreat also ministers to attendees of other Christian denominations.
During each retreat, attendees learn about Blessed Margaret of Castello, the ministry’s spiritual patron. Born blind, crippled, and abandoned by her family, the 14th century lay Dominican is considered the patron saint of the disabled. She died at age 33 after living her life in service to others.
Similarly, the ministry reaches out to the cognitively challenged who may feel isolated and forgotten.
“We wanted to offer something to that population,” Boerner said. “First of all, we want them to be able to go to a retreat, talk about God and what God means to them. And, if they want, to receive the sacraments.”
While planning the first retreat, organizers realized most of the disabled adults they met were baptized but received no further religious formation.
RECEIVING THE SACRAMENTS
David Nawaoba, a cognitively impaired 21-year-old, never made his first Communion because, “he was never registered for classes,” explained his father, Cyril Nawaoba. “There’s no way he could answer questions the regular way to receive the sacraments.”
The native of Nigeria and his wife are devout Catholics who attend Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception. That’s where fellow parishioners Looney and Boerner first noticed David never received the Eucharist during Communion.
“They asked if our son could join them at Faces and Hearts of Christ,” the dad remembered. “Now, every time they have a retreat, I bring him. He likes the community and has made friends.”
At the 4 p.m. Mass that concluded the first retreat in September 2017, David received the sacraments of Confirmation and holy Communion in the company of other disabled adults.
“What an amazing blessing it gave our church that day,” recalled Looney, a seasoned counselor and advocate for the disabled. “It is so beautiful to see people embrace this amazing community within our parish.”
AN OFFICIAL MINISTRY
Although preparing disabled adults for the sacraments is not the primary purpose of the retreats, organizers offer parents information and guidance with help from the diocese. Faces and Hearts of Christ wants adults with special needs to have their needs met.
“We’re now an official ministry of the diocese. I think that tells us where [Bishop Olson’s] heart is and where the diocese stands when it comes to the disabled,” Looney assured. “Even if a person can only communicate with the blink of an eye, but has an understanding of the Body and Blood of Christ, it is the responsibility of the community to meet those needs.”
The 20 disabled adults who come to each retreat from as far away as Carrollton, Plano, and Dallas are given a t-shirt with the motto: I am special. I am important. Because I am His.
Skip Rawley, now a faith mentor, prepares meditations based on that message for his fellow retreatants. When the group met February 16 , he asked listeners to think about the heart and “what’s precious to a person at any given moment.”
“I can relate to them because, like me, they have a disability,” he said encouragingly. “This ministry helps me shine a light into other people’s lives. It helps me be a better Catholic.”
OUR MOTHER OF PERPETUAL HELP
At first glance, the light-filled, cheerful space resembles a typical classroom. Brightly colored paper flowers border the walls, and art supplies fill a large worktable. There’s a well-used whiteboard, shelves crowded with books, and motivational posters with inspiring messages.
But something is very non-traditional about this setting. It’s the students. Our Mother of Perpetual Help educational program provides a Catholic-based learning environment for children and adolescents with special needs.
Housed in a building near St. Benedict Parish in north Fort Worth, the nonprofit venture is endorsed by the diocese and hopes to expand in the near future.
“We’re solvent, stable, and legitimate,” affirmed Pamela Mooney McGehee, who started the program in 2015 after looking for an effective, faith-based school for her daughter, Brigid, who has Down syndrome.
Realizing the youngster was not receiving the education she deserved at specialized learning centers, the Catholic convert and her husband, Frank, wanted Brigid to attend a Catholic school. Finding no program in the diocese for youngsters with special needs, the devoted mom decided to start one.
McGehee, a property investor, began home schooling her daughter but felt inadequate and continued to explore other options. The idea to invite more youngsters into Brigid’s classroom came after McGehee hired Natalie Lewis, a Texas State University graduate with a degree in special education.
“She has such a gift teaching children with special needs,” the founder said, praising the skilled educator. “I could not have started this school without her.”
Originally lodged in a two-story home, the program moved to a classroom adjacent to St. Thomas on Azle Avenue to accommodate more students. After the parish built a new church and relocated in 2016, Our Mother of Perpetual Help was given use of a larger building by the religious order that now resides at the site and operates St. Benedict Church.
WELL-ROUNDED PROGRAM SERVES STUDENTS
Offering a specialized curriculum for pupils of all faiths from age six to 23, the program is year-round with short breaks of vacation time. Tuition is $12,000 a year.
“The schedule helps students retain information,” McGehee explained. A catechist teaches religion once a week and a therapy dog, who looks like Toto from The Wizard of Oz, brings an added measure of comfort to the school day.
Although the program serves students with Down syndrome and autism, it welcomes children with other diagnoses as long as they do not have behavioral problems or are medically fragile.
“We’re not equipped to handle feeding tubes although I’d love to serve every child,” McGehee added.
A grant from Neiman Marcus funds an arts program and a soccer coach leads students through outdoor drills once a week. Visits to Casa Mañana and Cliburn recitals expose youngsters to live performance, and life skills — like cooking and baking — are taught each Friday.
“It’s a very well-rounded program with the goal of forming people who are holy and morally virtuous,” McGehee added. “We’re here for children with learning differences that Catholic schools can’t accommodate.”
Bolstered by a successful pilot program, she’s ready to publicize the venture and is applying for grant money from private foundations.
A GAME CHANGER
Attending Our Mother of Perpetual Help was a game changer for 16-year-old Jacob Myers. The St. Patrick parishioner was born with apraxia of speech — a motor speech disorder that makes it difficult for a person to talk. A computer tablet, with special software, helps him communicate.
“He’s learning and has matured so much,” said Mary Myers, Jacob’s mother. “The teachers are wonderful and just love these children.”
The program provides religious education and fosters a sense of camaraderie for parents and special needs youngsters who often feel isolated.
“There aren’t a lot of support groups out there,” pointed out Myers, a member of the board of directors who witnessed the program’s development from the start. “I’m glad to have found this community. Jacob gets individual attention but also has classmates. When we’re on vacation or after a long weekend, he’s ready to go back to school because he misses his friends.”
The owner of St. Anthony’s Church Supplies finds comfort in knowing her son is in a place where he can grow academically and learn about his faith.
“I want Jacob to live a good life and love the Lord,” Myers emphasized. “There are a lot of children out there who could benefit from this program.”
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Special needs youngsters can thrive if given proper guidance and one-on-one support, according to Natalie Lewis, the program’s lead educator executive director. Having childhood playmates with Down syndrome sparked her lifelong desire to teach God’s special children.
“These kids want to be contributing members of society,” insisted the cradle Catholic who earned a master’s degree in special education from Texas Christian University. “They want to do things — not just grow up to fold pizza boxes.”
Vocational training, job placement, and workplace support are introduced as a student approaches adulthood. One graduate of the program has begun the transition process.
The program is ready to connect with families who want a Christ-centered education for their special needs youngsters. The program’s holistic approach encourages children to reach their potential in an environment that nurtures both body and soul.
“We can exceed whatever goals they have at home,” Lewis said. “Miracles are happening here.”