September 11, 2015

Religious Education Supplement

Faith, fun and friendship draw people with special needs closer to God

Grant Bishop and Christina Flum share a moment of joy together during a recent session of “Faith, Fun and Friends”—a weekly program at the Aquinas Center in Sellersburg, a resource center for the New Albany Deanery. Flum leads the program that is designed to enhance the Catholic faith of people with special needs in the deanery. (Submitted photo)

Grant Bishop and Christina Flum share a moment of joy together during a recent session of “Faith, Fun and Friends”—a weekly program at the Aquinas Center in Sellersburg, a resource center for the New Albany Deanery. Flum leads the program that is designed to enhance the Catholic faith of people with special needs in the deanery. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Christina Flum’s voice fills with emotion as she recalls the touching moment between a mother and her son.

The moment happened as Flum led a group of Catholics with special needs in a May crowning ceremony for the Blessed Mother.

“We made flower bouquets, had a little procession and had a May crowning,” recalls Flum, the director of catechetical ministry at the Aquinas Center in Sellersburg, a resource center for the New Albany Deanery. “After the ceremony, we told them to take the flowers home for their mothers for Mother’s Day.

“One of the members of our group is non-verbal, but you could see his excitement by his face and by his clapping of his hands. It was like, ‘I have a present for my mom!’ When he gave her the flowers, the look on his face and the look on her face was priceless.”

That moment captures many of the great gifts that religious education leaders across the archdiocese receive as they teach and share the Catholic faith with people who have special needs.

“Being with them has made an impact on my faith,” says Flum, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. “Just seeing their hope and their unconditional love—that’s what God has for all of us. And I see it in them.”

She also has learned from their parents.

“I’m the caregiver of my mother,” she says. “My mom is 80, she’s had four strokes and blood cancer, and she has back issues. As her caregiver, I think of the faith and the unconditional love these parents have for their children. It’s such a motivation for me, and it helps me when I go home to take care of my mom.”

Flum works with the group in a program called “Faith, Fun and Friends.”

“We wanted a name that wouldn’t be intimidating for someone to join us,” she says. “They become friends very easily. It’s also important, no matter our age or mental capacity, to know what it means to be Church, what it means to be Catholic. I’m amazed at how much they know. When they receive Communion, they say, ‘That’s Jesus.’ ”

That combination of faith, fun and friendship also pervades the religious education program for children with special needs at St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour.

Eighth-grade students from the parish’s Sunday religious education program volunteer to work side by side with the children with special needs.

“We’ve found that most of our kids are more open to following the model of our eighth-graders,” says Christina Smith, the coordinator of religious education at St. Ambrose. “It’s created special bonds between them. Our middle-school kids are learning to love their peers in a special way. They learn how we’re all just human. It’s great to have a Church environment that shows these kids that God loves them where they are.”

And sometimes the children with special needs offer their own lessons about love and faith.

Smith shares the story of a child with autism who was initially so excited to serve as a lector during the parish’s annual Mass specifically for children with special needs. Yet before the Mass started, something happened, and the child didn’t want to participate. So Smith sat with him in the church’s “cry room.”

At different parts of the Mass, she asked him if he wanted to pray the “Our Father” or be blessed by the pastor celebrating the Mass, Father Daniel Staublin. Each time, the child screamed, “No!” Yet at the end of Mass, the child did something unexpected and moving when Father Staublin thanked all the children for their participation. The child rushed to the altar and wrapped his arms around the priest.

“Sometimes we don’t see or understand what these kids are going through inside,” Smith says. “But that was a moment that showed these kids are experiencing God’s love. It shows the blessing and the simplicity of Christ’s love for each of us.”

Nicole McConnell has experienced many of those moments in her 17 years of being the catechist leader of the program for adults with special needs at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. She shares the story of one member of her group—an adult whose sometimes-irreverent approach to life changes when the group is in church.

“When we’re at church together and we’re talking about God and Jesus, there’s something that comes over him that is so reverent and so from his heart,” she says. “He just points to Jesus on the cross every time we’re in church, and he says, ‘He’s the man.’

“You know that Jesus has given him something in his life.”

Sharing her Catholic faith with individuals with special needs—people she considers as friends—has also given McConnell “something” in her life.

“We’ve all been together so long. We meet every single week. We talk about God’s presence in our life and how God shows his love for us in the little things of life. We also talk about how we can show God’s love in our lives—how we can give in return to others.

“We are a family now, the friends and the catechists. We are all so close. I see it every time I’m with my friends in church. When they feel something so wondrous and joyful, I feel it, too. It’s a faith-sharing opportunity that I couldn’t do without in my life.”
 

(For more information about faith formation opportunities for people with special needs in central and southern Indiana, visit oce.archindy.org and click on “Catechesis for Persons with Special Needs.”)

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