Parish catechetical leaders, religion curriculum coordinators and catechists look over materials from Sister Kathleen Schipani, director of the Office of Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Parish catechetical leaders, religion curriculum coordinators and catechists look over materials from Sister Kathleen Schipani, director of the Office of Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

More than 100 members of the catechetical ministry from across the Diocese were asked to "imagine what could be" in helping persons with disabilities draw closer to God.

“We’re being called to do something different. We’re being called to dream,” said Denise Contino, director of the diocesan Department of Catechesis, in focusing the day for the parish catechetical leaders, religion curriculum coordinators and catechists.

“Young people with disabilities have the ability to know and love and learn about God,” Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Schipani told those assembled in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Parish, Freehold, Nov. 18 for the workshop “Encountering All God’s Children: adapting catechetical and sacramental preparation for people with disabilities.”  She continued, “We believe that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and that is true also of someone with disabilities. They are made in the image of God.”

During the morning session, Sister Kathleen outlined the “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” a document developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The document reiterates that all forms of the liturgy must be accessible to persons with disabilities and that accessibility refers to more than physical alterations, but also that provisions be made for Catholics with disabilities to allow participation in the Eucharist and liturgical celebrations.

To assist those who prepare students for reception of the Sacraments, Sister Kathleen identified the 13 categories of disabilities as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Act including autism, which she noted, “affects 1 in 54 children” and specifically “1 in 33 children in New Jersey.” Blindness, deafness, emotional disturbance, hearing impairment, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impaired, specific learning disability, speech language impairment, traumatic brain injury and visual impairment complete the list.

She communicated the 2019 message Pope Francis delivered on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities that was woven through the day’s discussion. “I pray that each person may feel the paternal gaze of God, who affirms his full dignity and the unconditional value of his life.”

The Holy Innocents Society, a diocesan organization that has aided adults and children with special needs for several years, sponsored the day’s presentation along with a grant from Tom and Glory Sullivan Fund.

“The mission of the group is to provide spiritual education, recreational activities, social and cultural services and offer religious education, including sacramental prep,” Contino said. “The Holy Innocents Society can provide referrals and provide counseling to address ongoing and changing needs. They are trying to bring awareness of the resources to families, so they know where to go when help is needed.”

Later in her talk, Sister Kathleen presented catechists with strategies and different modifications that can be incorporated into their religious education instruction and sacramental preparation in response to some of the learning disabilities discussed. Each parish and school also received resources from Loyola Press to use with their students.

Barbara Sanna, director of religious education in Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Trenton, said, “I have a better knowledge of what resources are available in our Diocese for students and adults with special needs. It’s good to know we have these resources available.”

Ericka Rodriguez, director of religious education, in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral and St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, was glad to learn of the supports available to catechists. “I really appreciate this information. In the past I researched things on my own with the help of the Holy Spirit. Now I know where to go to find information.”

Fellow catechist Ana Castro agreed. “It’s so important for us to be able to work with families. Students need to be able to receive their Sacraments with their parishes.”

The discussion was not only for religious education programs, but also had implications for Catholic schools.

Mercy Sister Carole MacKenthum, religion curriculum coordinator at St. Catharine School, Spring Lake, is looking forward to conveying some of the things she learned with her school community. “In schools we have a knowledge of these disabilities, but we never talk about them in regard to faith development. It’s good to know there are resources available that we can access in Religion. I am taking away a lot of activities that I can share with the teachers.”

Donna Remaley, director of Faith Formation in Holy Eucharist Parish, Tabernacle, shared, “Wow. I am already thinking how I can create teams and call upon others to better serve our community. I’m thinking how I can cultivate a message to the community that all are welcome and that we will work with parents and students. We can always do better. This is the start of something new.”

For more information on the Holy Innocents Society and for resources available for catechists, visit, https://dioceseoftrenton.org/catechesis