Editor’s Note: This reflection was written before the COVID-19 pandemic. We publish it because the message still holds true and the physical aspect of being together eventually will return. Be safe and know that you are loved.
By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD
On a Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before our first SPRED (Special Religious Development) session of the year, I received a phone call from our lead catechist. She informed me about a new friend who would be coming and asked if I would accompany her in our group. I was asked to take the role of a helper catechist, unlike in the past when I simply observed the whole group during a session.
I felt excited and nervous at the same time. This would be my first time in the role of a helper catechist in our SPRED group. When I arrived at the SPRED center that evening, I felt apprehensive. My heart was beating fast as I entered our preparation room. Our activity catechist welcomed me and introduced me to Marie, the friend whom I was to accompany.
As we approached, she was playing with sand in the corner of our preparation room. She looked at me for a second and then offered her right hand to shake my hand. I told her my name and smiled as we shook hands. She does not communicate verbally. She is on the autism spectrum. I was not quite sure how I was going to build a relationship with a person who was non-verbal.
After shaking hands with Marie, I pulled up a chair and sat across from her at the table. I sat with her as she quietly worked with sand and seashells in a large container. She scooped the sand with a small shell and poured it like a flowing waterfall. While she held the shell in her left hand to scoop and pour the sand, she was catching and pouring sand with her right hand. She was attentively focused on the sand as she worked.
My anxiousness started to gradually subside. I believe her calming presence helped me get over my anxieties. She was at ease and did not disrupt any of the others during the whole session. She did not walk away from me, and I observed from her behavior that she wanted to spend time with me. I believe we were both comfortable with one another. I was grateful and joyful that we were able to bond at our first meeting. It gave me hope that her presence and involvement in our first session would be beneficial for her whole faith formation.
In our SPRED community, many parents have shared stories about their sad and painful experiences of rejection and isolation because of their child’s condition. These stories convey a social reality—that disabilities can lead to being isolated and marginalized. Through no fault of their own or their families, our friends sometimes are marginalized in parish settings despite church documents that uphold their belonging to the family of God.
Many families were discouraged from attending the Sunday liturgy with their family member with disabilities because of the ways they have been treated by others in the assembly. There have been occasions when people with disabilities and their families were reprimanded and asked to leave the church because others could not cope with some of the difficulties the person with disabilities was having.
These are pressing issues that we attempt to address throughout our catechist formation in SPRED. As catechists, we advocate for the rights of people with disabilities to share the liturgy with all believers. The faith formation empowers them to truly belong in our liturgical communities. Through our SPRED community of faith, our friends become more comfortable entering into the worship experience of the whole church.
Parish leaders need to be sensitive and listen attentively. Patience, respect, and collaboration are necessary both on the part of the family requesting support and on the part of the parish trying to be supportive.
Some ask: Are they capable of having faith? Can they acquire faith and explain it? Are they capable of knowing their religion? Do they understand the meaning of prayers, hymns, gestures, sacraments? Can they really participate in liturgy?
Our friends with disabilities may not have the same cognitive capacity as we have to understand prayers, hymns, gestures and sacraments, but we have to understand that faith is neither fundamentally abstract nor purely conceptual. It is about relationships. For that reason, persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be educated in faith by providing them the opportunity to experience our faith.
Each person is a human being. Each person has his or her own way of relating to others. Abstract or conceptual knowing may be limited but there are other ways of knowing, such as symbolic or intuitive knowing and response. Our friends have a strong affective capacity to make others feel valued. Let the relationship they share with us, the friendship, our experience together in SPRED become the vehicle for their physical, psychological and spiritual growth.
At a Mass in Rome, Pope Francis told those in the audience that when St. Pius X ruled in 1910 that children as young as seven years old could receive Communion, similar objections were raised. “But that child won’t understand,” the critics complained. But St. Pius went ahead, knowing: “Each one of us has a different way of understanding things. One understands one way and another in a different manner, but we can all know God.”
One of our fellow catechists shared this reflection: “SPRED means creating bonds of new friendships, a beautiful sense of community, learning to see Christ in everyday situations, knowing that I need a Shepherd; not being afraid to grow, to love, to forgive; seeing my friend with disabilities for the first time lean forward with her hands outstretched to hear what Jesus wants to say to her today.”
Every Sunday I see Marie with her mom, dad and grandmother at our liturgy at the SPRED center. I admire them for their love and dedication as they accompany her on her faith journey. I also am inspired by Marie who does not merely attend the liturgy but also participates according to her own capacity. When I see her, I remember how she leads me during our SPRED sessions with her reflective presence, her deep awareness and loving attentiveness to others.