May 21, 2010

Catholic Evangelization / Charlie Gardner

Is there room at the Table?

Coming together to share our faith and knowing that we are a part of a community—these are hopes we all have when we join a parish.

It is through these connections that we come to know Christ better, and it is when we come to know Christ more deeply that we become better messengers of the Gospel in the world. And yet we know it can be challenging.

A few years ago, I was working at a parish when our pastoral staff was approached by some parents of children and youth with developmental disabilities.

Although they were thankful for SPRED, the archdiocesan special religious development program, and the opportunity to have their children learn the faith and prepare for the sacraments, many of them found it virtually impossible to attend Mass regularly due to their children’s challenges and the behaviors that accompanied those challenges. When they did try to bring the whole family to church, they sometimes felt scorned by other churchgoers.

Some of the children showed no outward physical signs of special needs, but still faced autism, developmental or neurological disorders or a host of other challenges. Some would speak out or act out in ways that many of us would consider inappropriate.

Their parents felt torn between their love for the Church and the Eucharist, and their need to protect their family from others who judged them unfairly. They knew of other parents and families who had just given up going to church all together.

These parents simply asked for a chance to share their stories with the parish. Their efforts produced a response that was truly amazing. After the presentations at Mass, person after person came up to them to talk about how their family member or friend who had a child with special needs had just stopped coming to church because they felt unwelcome. These people were speaking of family members and friends literally across the country, not only in this particular parish.

Estimates of the percentage of cognitively disabled people in our country range from 2 to 3 percent. This could mean that as many as 6,700 people in our archdiocese have developmental disabilities. This translates to as many as 15 people in a parish of 500 members, 30 people in a parish of 1,000 members or 150 in a parish of 5,000 members.

How many people with developmental disabilities are present at your parish Masses? The odds are that there are many who are Catholic, and live in the parish. Are they attending Mass? Do they feel welcome?

The U.S. bishops tell us that, “The love of the Father for the weakest of his children and the continuous presence of Jesus and his Spirit give assurance that every person, however limited, is capable of growth in holiness” (General Directory for Catechesis, #189, cited in the National Directory for Catechesis).

The SPRED programs we have in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have two main goals for their “friends.” The first is to provide a place for these special friends to share their faith. The second is to help them be full participants in the community as much as they are able—in prayer, worship and service to others. And when the friends become full participants in our communities, their family members find that they can be full participants as well—no longer feeling torn between their love of the Eucharist and their worry that others will judge them.

We need to remember Jesus’ words in the Gospel, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest” (Lk 9:48).

(Charlie Gardner is the executive director for Spiritual Life and Worship and director of Liturgical Music for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. For information about forming parish evangelization teams, contact Peg McEvoy, associate director for Evangelization and Family Catechesis, at or call 317-236-1430 or 800-832-9836, ext. 1430.)

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