Mark and Kim Stagliano couldn’t have been happier. Posing with their three young daughters right after 14-year-old Mia and 13-year-old Gianna, the two oldest, made their first holy Communion together last year, they thanked God for the amazement of his grace.
“Having that picture in our house of the girls in their white dresses,” says Kim, “is visual proof they made their first holy Communion, and we’re able to walk together as a family to Communion on Sunday.” All three daughters have autism.
Before the Staglianos became parishioners at St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, Conn., Kim attended her nephew’s first holy Communion in Ohio, and she remembers thinking that Mia might not be able to make hers.
“It never occurred to me that a parish would instruct with only the bare communication to receive the sacraments,” says Kim. “That weighed heavy on me.”
That changed when they moved to Connecticut and registered at St. Theresa’s and learned about special-education catechism classes held there. “We immediately were made to feel welcome because the pastor welcomed our children,” says Kim.
Programs in places like the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., are proving children and young adults with autism, Down syndrome and other developmental disabilities or special needs are certainly capable of receiving faith formation and the sacraments of initiation.
“To see these children receive the holy Eucharist for the very first time always brings tears to my eyes,” says diocesan special-education teacher June Venditti. “It is beautiful to see the fruits of our labor in the eyes of these children, who reflect the love that Our Lord has for them.”
At St. Theresa’s, during the last 27 of her 30 years with the program, Venditti has prepared more than 125 children. Some attend from other parishes.
While the diocese has two other special-needs programs where children receive one-on-one support from aides and parents, many children are placed in regular religious programs if parents so choose.
“We accompany families,” says Michelle Grieco, director of the diocese’s ministry for people with disabilities. “Parents are the first teachers. They have great responsibilities.”
“My job,” adds Grieco, “is to give parents the resources we have available so these children can be what Pope John Paul II specifically said they are at the symposium on the dignity and rights of the mentally disabled in 2004. He called them ‘living icons of the crucified Son.’”
Said John Paul: “It is said, justifiably so, that disabled people are humanity’s privileged witnesses. They can teach everyone about the love that saves us; they can become heralds of a new world … transfigured by the light of Christ.”
Building on Strengths
Another effective program, begun in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1967, has spread to 14 U.S. dioceses and several countries around the globe. Called Special Religious Education Development (Spred), its co-founders Father James McCarthy and Sister Mary Therese Harrington of the Society of Helpers remain Spred’s directors. In the Chicago Archdiocese alone there are 150 Spred centers in 170 parishes. (Sometimes two or three parishes combine to form one center.)
To form Spred (online at spred.org), the founders put the one-to-one relationships together with the more contemplative French Vivre model for catechesis. Today Spred usually pairs six people with intellectual disability with six sponsors, most often with grouping according to chronological age rather than intellectual abilities, according to Sister Mary. Parents prefer these small, age-grouped communities of faith.
Spred gives a diocese a basic outline so local parishes can develop and tailor a program to their particular needs.
“The written material is very schematic (because) there’s a wide range of disabilities,” says Sister Mary, pointing out that life experiences are cited as developing a sense of the sacred. The basis is friendship, building trust by helping children relate to others, then encouraging a sense of sacredness and respect. “They learn Jesus is with us,” says Sister Mary, “and he leads us to the Father.” The sacraments of initiation follow.
“If the child has a sense of the sacred, a desire and a ‘twilight awareness,’” she says, “we go with the sacrament and with the catechesis.”
She finds the children end up doing more than anybody anticipated. “Unfortunately,” she adds, “some people don’t give them credit for the competence they have.”
She remembers being encouraged early on by a young girl who did not speak. Her dying mother gave her as an infant to the good neighbors who raised her. Two years into Sister Mary’s group, at the fellowship table one day, she joined in singing the song.
“We fell over,” says Sister Mary. “We realized she had language. Within a warm, emotional setting, she could say words if she sang them.” She ended up carrying on a reasonable conversation.
“We build through their strengths,” adds Grieco, pointing out that many children love music. She remembers while practicing the “Amen” with a tambourine, the Staglianos’ 9-year-old daughter Bella not only discovered she could shake her pigtails to the beat — she then said “Amen,” her first two-syllable word.
Even challenges like modifying curricula without compromising the teachings of the Church can be overcome. Venditti teaches the children to make the connection between Jesus and the holy Eucharist by showing a picture of Jesus alongside an unconsecrated host.
Explains Venditti: “Pointing to the picture of Jesus, we say, ‘This is Jesus.’ We then hold up the unconsecrated host and say, ‘This is Jesus.’ They begin to recognize what the priest does at Mass, and also that Jesus comes to us at Mass in a special form as bread, which nourishes us spiritually. On their Communion day, they’re always very eager to receive the Blessed Sacrament.”
Grieco says children with special needs are blessed with a lack of guile. “They say, ‘That’s Jesus,’ and they love Jesus. They don’t question Christ’s love. For them, receiving the sacrament is like receiving it each time for the first time. They can teach us.”
The Staglianos see their children display this understanding. At Mass Mia will say, “Time for host,” and Gianna will say, “Time to turn the wine into blood.”
So much joy and appreciation comes from teaching children with special needs that there are bonuses for everyone. Greico says Venditti’s high school aides tell her the children have taught them so much. Most return each year, like the boy who now wants to be a special-education teacher because he sees the joy of students, teachers and parents every time the children learn something new.
At the same time, families grow stronger in the Catholic faith. As Kim Stagliano witnesses, “Having the program brought our family back to the Church. When a parish embraces your children, they get the whole family.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.