Faithful Not Successful

A New Chapter in Catechesis for Persons with Disabilities

{This post originally appeared at Accepting the Gift
and is reprinted here with permission.}

In late June 2020, the Vatican released a new General Directory for Catechesis (available for purchase from the USCCB). The document addresses catechesis in the Church as a whole, from philosophical underpinnings to practical implementation, providing pastoral guidelines as well as a beautiful discussion on the relationship between catechesis and evangelization.

But today, let’s focus on one great gift of this document: Chapter VIII Section 6, Catechesis in the Lives of Persons with Disabilities. It’s only four paragraphs long, but it is POWERFUL. Every word counts, and (almost) every word is an affirmation of the goodness and dignity of every human person. Let’s unpack it together, shall we?

In the first paragraph of this section (269), the Directory reaffirms the dignity of every human person and the preferential option of Christians to care for the most vulnerable, pointing out that we must “recognize the presence of Jesus who in a special way manifests himself in [persons with disabilities].” Importantly, the authors point out what they call a “two-fold mission” regarding catechesis and the disabled: to educate them, yes, but also to acknowledge that they can be “active subjects” — evangelists and catechists themselves, not just passive recipients. A strong call is made to resist the throwaway culture of death, the modern willingness to deny that we are all vulnerable and that humans are not a utilitarian resource.

Paragraph 270 contains both my favorite and least favorite passages. It notes that “persons with disabilities are a growth opportunity” for the Church, a phrase that unfortunately echoes the corporate, mechanistic mindset of our wider society. People are never, ever “growth opportunities.” But this misstep is surmounted by the second half of the paragraph, a passage so rich in beauty, truth, and goodness that it bears quoting in full:

“Precisely because they are witnesses to the essential truths of human life, persons with disabilities must be welcomed as a great gift. The community, enriched by their presence, becomes more aware of the salvific mystery of the cross of Christ and, in living reciprocal relationships of welcoming and solidarity, becomes a source of good in life and a reminder for the world. Catechesis is therefore to help the baptized to interpret the mystery of human suffering in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ.”

If there exists a more powerful summary of the crucial, life-giving role of persons with disabilities in the mission of the Church, I’d sure like to see it.

The next paragraph, 271, is a nuts-and-bolts argument for the necessity of inclusion in parishes, providing concrete avenues for doing it better. It calls for new communication channels and methods; reliance on all five senses; and specific catechist formation for working with persons with disabilities. Perhaps most importantly, the Directory notes that persons’ families should be involved and, in fact, explicitly accompanied on their often-difficult journeys, remarking on the profound witness of these families’ “openness to life.” (I feel seen.)

Image: Young boy in plaid shirt sitting on a bench, backlit and laughing, open Bible on his lap.
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Finally, paragraph 272 lowers the proverbial hammer, mincing no words: “no one can refuse the sacraments to persons with disabilities.” Since the goal of catechesis is to bring a person into ever more intimate and more perfect union with Christ — and the sacraments are the most important means to that most important end — the impact of this one sentence cannot be overstated. Even the presence of “severe disorders” cannot disqualify someone from the sacramental life. Given the spate of recent news stories about Communion being denied to autistic children, for example (to say nothing of numerous private discussions with frustrated Catholic parents whose children are denied access, implicitly or explicitly, to quality catechesis), this is a welcome pronouncement indeed.

Beyond that, this final paragraph urges us to consider persons with disabilities not just as recipients of that sacramental life, but as “participants in evangelization.” I know the impact our own son has had on bolstering the faith of everyone around him (me included), despite his profound and multiple disabilities. We Christians are all urged to seek ways to empower and encourage these unique earthly ministries to flourish — we parents even more so.

How does your parish accompany persons with disabilities and their families? Have you experienced lack of access to catechesis or lack of understanding? If so, how are you called to respond constructively?

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