September 7, 2018

Religious Education Supplement

All parishioners ‘have a role to play’ in welcoming Church family, including those with special needs

Father Todd Goodson baptizes Guadalupe Vasquez on April 15, 2017, during a celebration of the Easter Vigil at St. Monica Church in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis West Deanery faith community annually welcomes dozens of children into the full communion of the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults adapted for children. (Submitted photo)

Michael Risch, right, and David Bailey greet each other after Mass at St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis on Aug. 26. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

As the priest and servers exit the nave of the church, a flood of parishioners follows. Among them is 49-year-old Michael Risch. His progress is slowed by the number of those who stop to shake his hand, to comment on the previous night’s Colts game, or to give and receive a hug.

Such welcome and reaching out have earned St. Mark the Evangelist Parish a place of privilege: “It’s my home in my heart,” Risch says, touching his chest.

Mostly by invitation from members of the parish, Risch, who has Down syndrome, is a member of the parish’s men’s club, a small church community, the Knights of Columbus Council #3660 and Fourth Degree Assembly #345, and a volunteer for the St. Vincent de Paul Society. He has also sung in the men’s choir and has served lunch in the school cafeteria.

“I was thrilled with how, when he first came here, many people came up to him, approached him and included him,” says Risch’s sister, Chris Guedel. “It’s so heartwarming to me to know they get to experience his immense heart, his honesty.”

‘Joyful inclusion of all God’s people’

Based on a document regarding those in the Church with special needs, St. Mark and its parishioners who welcome and interact with Risch are doing the right thing.

“All members of the faith community have a role to play in the invitation, welcome and inclusion of people with disabilities,” states the revised “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” approved in June of 2017 by the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The goal of such efforts, the document says, is to form “a community of believers known for its joyful inclusion of all of God’s people around the table of the Lord.”

Such needs go beyond “the table.” The scope of consideration for those with special needs includes physical features of a church building, such as ramps and handrails; resources for the vision and hearing impaired during Mass and for the reception of sacraments; adaptable resources for inclusion, when possible, in parish catechetical and sacramental preparation programs; and special ministries.

Down syndrome, as in Risch’s case, is just one form of special needs, which run the gamut from mild to chronic: vision, hearing, communication and mobility impairments; neurological and mental disorders; allergies or diseases that require modified hosts, and more.

The document even addresses challenges presented by end-of-life issues, such as how to offer the sacraments to people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and feeding tubes.

“What the bishops make clear from the beginning [of the document] is the dignity of each person,” says Erin Jeffries, archdiocesan coordinator of ministry to persons with special needs. “And the Church keeps continuing to grow in knowledge of members with disabilities. Part of the reason they [updated the document] was to denote a shift in this [knowledge] in recent years, and recognize that there’s still room for growth.”

‘Ask my name. I’ll ask your name.’

One of Jeffries’ duties is to “provide tools to help parishes build a relationship [with members with special needs] and to help provide ideas for adaptations based on the needs of a person,” she says.

She has developed a questionnaire for catechetical leaders to use to identify a person’s “skills, challenges, triggers, interactions and reactions to behaviors that might pop up, without asking for a specific diagnosis,” Jeffries explains.

She also offers onsite workshops for catechists and teachers, and recently developed an online tool offering “practical tips to support parishes in building relationships with parishioners who have disabilities, as well as supporting their families,” available at (case sensitive).

One point of advice on the site is to “look at, smile and talk to individuals with disabilities, not just their parent, siblings or caretaker[s].”

Risch agrees with this advice. Imagining himself in a different church, he describes what he would like to see happen: “Ask my name. I’ll ask your name. Say, ‘You’re a Colts fan!’ ” he says, pointing to his blue horseshoe tie.

Dolores Snyder, a member of St. John Paul II Parish in Sellersburg who also works as the parish’s director of evangelization, says such interaction is “a vital part of a parish.”

“I love to see special needs people be greeters,” she says. “Some people are physically afraid of them. So when someone with special needs reaches out to shake their hand, the people in the parish realize each person is special. It’s such a gift to have those with special needs in the parish interact with all members of the parish. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Snyder says two parishioners with disabilities serve as ushers. One of those two is non-verbal. To help the parish become comfortable with the situation, a family member of the special-needs usher spoke at each Mass one weekend.

“The interaction has been absolutely wonderful,” she says. “No one gets frustrated.”

‘One characteristic of a greater whole’

The two ushers also have the opportunity to learn about their faith through New Albany Deanery’s Adult Special Needs Religious Education Group, which is hosted by St. John Paul II Parish. Snyder serves as advisor to three volunteers who form what she calls the “educated backbone” of the team.

Whereas special-needs children are incorporated into adapted parish youth religious education programs, the adult group is for those age 18 and older.

“Anyone in the [New Albany] deanery with a physical or mental disability is welcome,” Snyder says. “Non-verbal, slight to severe, Asperger’s, autistic, non-hearing, Down syndrome—we will accommodate anyone with any kind of disability. We want them here.”

The same is true for the Indianapolis South Deanery’s Special Religious Education (SPRED) group, which is hosted at St. Mark. Once a year in the spring, a special SPRED Mass is celebrated in which its members participate as lectors, altar servers, gift bearers and more. Risch recently served on the hospitality team for the SPRED Mass.

St. Mark has proven to be a natural fit as host to SPRED. For years, the parish has had an active Inclusion Ministry. According to the parish website, the ministry “educates and raises [parishioners’] awareness regarding accessibility. … [It] also assesses the accessibility of the parish environment and determines ways to improve and facilitate implementation of those changes.”

One way the ministry educates parishioners is including a spot in the weekly bulletin with inclusion information and tips. In the Aug. 26 bulletin, for example, the spot included that a person’s special needs is “just one characteristic of the much greater whole of who they are as individuals.”

‘We are all wonderfully made.’

Such a statement speaks to the dignity of the entire person, regardless of the existence of any special needs.

“People in the pew need to understand that we can’t exclude people because they’re different, no matter what the difference is,” says Snyder.

She describes an image of children with various special needs she once had printed in the parish bulletin.

“It had the words, ‘We are all wonderfully made,’ ” she recalls. “We want people in the pews to know that just because [someone] can’t speak or hear or has Down syndrome, they are all wonderfully made, just like you.”

When it comes to parishes and parish members welcoming those with disabilities, Jeffries cites the recently revised guidelines document: “The Church continues to affirm the dignity of every human being, and to grow in knowledge and understanding of the gifts and needs of her members who live with disabilities.”

She says that whether a parishioner feels “like there are some great things going on” in regard to special needs at their parish, or “that this is an area for growth, it is good to be reminded that we are all a work in progress as we seek to be parish communities where people have a sense of belonging.

“What is important is that, with our bishops, we continue to open our eyes to those around us, to the gifts they have to share, and to see what supports might make all the difference in enabling each person to be a thriving member of the Body of Christ. In that endeavor, we truly are in it together, and we are here to help.”

(For more information on meeting the needs of those with disabilities in parishes, visit or contact Erin Jeffries at 317-236-1448, 800-382-9836 ext. 1448, or Jeffries can also be contacted for more information on SPRED groups throughout the archdiocese. For more information on New Albany Deanery’s Adult Special Needs Religious Education Group, contact Dolores Snyder at 812-246-5088 or on Mondays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. or on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m. The group’s next meeting is 7-8 p.m. on Oct. 25 in the former school building on the St. Joseph Chapel campus, 2605 St. Joe Road W., in Sellersburg.)

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