When a parish refuses to prepare a child for sacraments because of a disability, it's like slamming the church door on an entire family, experts from the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh told diocesan religious education directors from across the state yesterday.
"We reject that child and the whole family is rejected," said Grace Harding, former director of the Pittsburgh diocese's office for ministry to persons with disabilities. She gave the workshop in Penn Hills with her successor, Sister Michelle Grgurich.
"I'm sure you've all experienced that situation, when a family comes to you in tears saying 'My child was put out because he couldn't say the Our Father.' They're in agony," she said.
Such situations are far less frequent than they once were, but still occur, she said. The decrease is due in part to pioneering work in the Diocese of Pittsburgh on religious education for those with mental retardation, autism and physical disabilities.
With sponsorship from Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a decade ago the diocese developed The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy curriculum for mentally retarded children and adults. Ms. Harding has given workshops on it in 68 dioceses nationwide.
Baptism, not intellectual ability, is the key to faith, she said. "Baptism creates a level playing field. Baptism means you are entitled to the fullness of the church," she said.
Nearly all of the dioceses represented at the conference had at least one person on the chancery staff who specialized in religious education for people with disabilities. But getting that knowledge to the parish level is a perpetual challenge, the educators said.
One had attended a conference where teachers were incorrectly told that deaf Catholics could not take an interpreter into the sacrament of confession.
"They have the right to have the interpreter there with them if they choose," Sister Michelle said.
One of the most difficult problems to resolve has been communion for children who are physically unable to swallow the host. Sometimes parents want a solution that violates church teaching. Nevertheless, Ms. Harding said, the pastor and teachers must begin by asking the parents exactly what troubles them about the situation and how the church can help. If church leaders instead begin by saying what can't be done, it will only aggravate the problem, she said.
If the child is physically able, the best solution is to receive only the consecrated wine, she said.
Sharon Hachman, who works for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, praised a solution that a parish priest had found for her elderly mother, who had Parkinson's disease and dementia. She had asked the Rev. Richard Karenbauer, of St. Mary Czestochowa in New Kensington, if she should continue to bring her mother to communion, since she had trouble swallowing and might not understand what was going on.
Father Karenbauer, she said, told her he would use the smallest particle of host that the church would allow, taking as much time as necessary to help her mother swallow it. If that became impossible, he said, he would use a special spoon to give her mother a tiny sip of the wine.
"So many people stopped me at Mass and said what a lesson it was to the entire parish. The time that he took with her was such a witness," she said.
Music is helpful for students with a variety of neurological disabilities, Ms. Harding said, particularly when religious words are set to familiar tunes.
For autistic children, she recommended introducing them to the church building when it is empty, so they won't be overwhelmed by the people. She encouraged teachers and parents to make "church scrapbooks," containing photographs of all important objects, activities and symbols in their own church, and a simple explanation of each.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.