September 14, 2012

Religious Education Supplement

St. Jude Parish begins inclusion ministry team

St. Jude parishioner Brittany Fahringer, left, a volunteer aide in the third-grade religious education class, helps Lauren Pfeiffer, center, and Sophie McKinney, right, with a class lesson on Sept. 9. (Submitted photos)

St. Jude parishioner Brittany Fahringer, left, a volunteer aide in the third-grade religious education class, helps Lauren Pfeiffer, center, and Sophie McKinney, right, with a class lesson on Sept. 9. (Submitted photos)

By Mary Ann Garber

Welcoming children with special needs to religious education classes is one goal of St. Jude Parish’s new inclusion ministry.

St. Jude’s faith formation commission also wants to promote more awareness and acceptance of Catholics of all ages who have a large spectrum of special needs and are members of the Indianapolis South Deanery parish.

“We’re excited that we get to share Christ with these families,” St. Jude parishioner Casey Strange of Indianapolis said. “… We want to respond to everyone’s [spiritual] needs.”

Strange serves on the parish’s faith formation commission, and also volunteers as a catechist for the third-grade religious education class there.

Working with Tammy Stewart, administrator of religious education, and Father Stephen Banet, pastor, the commission members researched ways to better include people with disabilities in the life of the parish.

“We talked to the parents of children with special needs,” Strange said. “We asked, ‘How do we start making the whole parish more inclusive? Tell us about your child. Tell us what things go well for your child, and maybe we can make our classes more like that.’ Then we began with religious education. … I think a lot of this effort is about having a positive approach, and recognizing the gifts of every child in the classroom.”

Stewart said the parish’s new inclusion ministry was led by the Holy Spirit as commission members discussed religious education goals last November.

Commission members learned that some parishioners with disabilities do not participate in religious education classes, Masses and other parish activities because of physical and behavioral challenges, she said, “and that was heavy on my heart.”

Several months ago, Stewart met with Kara Favata, assistant director of special religious education for the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education, about ways to enhance parish inclusion efforts.

Stewart also placed a notice in the parish bulletin inviting parishioners to join a new inclusion ministry team.

Twelve parishioners responded that have professional or personal experience assisting people with physical and developmental disabilities. Committee members include physical therapists, speech pathologists, special education teachers and parents of children with special needs.

To better serve each child’s individual learning styles, Stewart said, the religious education curriculum—based on the Blest Are We catechetical series published by RCL Benziger—was adapted to provide more visual aids, greater flexibility, increased movement, outdoor time and additional “hands-on” activities for students with special needs as well as children who are typical learners.

“Now, kids that were having trouble participating [in a traditional classroom setting] can be part of the group,” Strange said, “and it’s more fun for all the kids.”

Talking with parents about each child’s medical issues, unique challenges and learning styles helps build trust, he said, and parents can relax more during religious education class time on Sunday mornings because they know that their children’s needs are being met by the catechists.

“It doesn’t matter what the children’s disabilities are,” Stewart said. “Our concern is how we can meet their needs and respond to their learning styles. Some of the children haven’t been able to join the classes before because that required a lot of sitting down time for learning. Now that we are open to other instructional methods and ideas, it is such a gift to have children with special needs in the classroom.”

Nearby St. Mark the Evangelist Parish has offered inclusive ministries for years, she said, and their staff and volunteers suggested helpful ideas as did members of Indian Creek Christian Church in Indianapolis.

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability website at was another good training resource, Stewart said, so catechists could reassure “parents who have walked this very frustrating journey of wanting their children in religious education, but feeling that we weren’t prepared for their children’s needs.”

Catechists receive a list of helpful information about every child with special needs, she said, that explains what learning styles work best.

Stewart also arranged for high school students who are members of St. Jude Parish to assist volunteer catechists as classroom aides.

The commission’s inclusive efforts for persons with disabilities also encompass other aspects of parish life to encourage more faith-sharing and new friendships.

“Parents of children with special needs are often nervous about bringing their children to Mass,” Stewart said. “We want to educate the whole parish about inclusiveness.”

Favata’s archdiocesan special education ministry focuses on helping parishes increase awareness about disabilities and the need for inclusion as well as specialized approaches like Special Religious Development (SPRED) programs.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes that, ‘We are a single flock under the care of a single shepherd. There can be no separate Church for persons with disabilities,’ ” Favata said. “ ‘Persons with disabilities, especially children, are particularly beloved of the Lord and are integral members of the Christian community’ ” (catechism, #181).

Making our parishes inclusive means “being welcoming to all persons with disabilities,” she said. “If you know of parents who are not attending Mass together or at all because they have a child with a disability, reach out and make that phone call and welcome them to the Mass. Just because their child is making noise doesn’t mean that they are going to be rejected by the parish community.”

Parents might consider attending an early Mass, Favata said, that is less crowded and may not include music to minimize any sensory issues for their child with special needs.

“We are all a part of the Body of Christ,” Favata said. “We all have different gifts and abilities to bring to the Lord’s Table. Persons with disabilities have the same needs and desire to be loved and accepted and welcomed by others, especially at church.

“… It’s easy to be welcoming to parents and children with special needs at Mass by making eye contact and saying, ‘Hello. We’re glad you’re here,’ ” she said. “You don’t need any special skills to be inclusive. You just need to be loving, open and accepting. … Every parish can have a disabilities awareness committee, and parishioners can focus on making everyone feel welcome.”

(For more information about providing inclusive ministries in parishes, call Kara Favata at the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education in Indianapolis at 317-236-1448 or 800-382-9836, ext. 1448, or send an e-mail to her at

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