“Persons with disabilities… are integral members of the Christian community. All persons with disabilities have the capacity to proclaim the Gospel and to be living witnesses to its truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts.
“Their involvement enriches every aspect of Church life. They are not just
the recipients of catechesis – they are also its agents.”
– National Directory for Catechesis (USCCB)
A family’s dream to fully immerse all their children in the sacramental life of the Church has blossomed into a faith-filled program which enables its users to comprehend and participate in the Eucharist and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
David and Mercedes Rizzo, parishioners in St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Marlton, are parents to Brendan, Colin, Danielle and Shannon and faithful practicing Catholics. Upon Danielle’s diagnosis of autism, the family realized how few resources were available to enable her to grow in her faith as her siblings could.
“When we first tried to prepare Danielle for her First Holy Communion, we saw there were no materials for non-verbal children, so I thought, ‘let’s put together some resources,’” remembered David. Once a physical therapist working primarily with adults in nursing homes, David had switched his focus to working with adults and children with developmental disabilities after Danielle’s birth.
His wife Mercedes realized they faced an uphill struggle. “We knew when Danielle was four or five years old that we would have to start early and it would be a long process, for she needed very individualized teaching,” said the mother of four.
The idea of creating a sacramental preparation for children with special needs was sparked in 2008 as 14-year-old son Brendan, in search of an Eagle Scout project, decided to create a lending library for his parish that would be geared towards teaching children with autism and special needs about their faith. As he compiled the books, models and puzzles for the library, the teenager discovered there were few resources available for this population, and recalled his parents’ struggles to prepare his younger sister, Danielle, to receive her First Holy Communion two years before.
David thought resources using the Picture Exchange Communication System, or PECS, might be the answer to his daughter’s need for appropriate faith-based materials. PECS uses a set of standardized photos of common everyday items to communicate with special needs or autistic children. Danielle, who was non-verbal, responded to these visual cues, so David, Mercedes and Brendan had enlisted the help of a behaviorist friend to create a teaching tool geared towards autistic youth with few reading skills.
In the fall of 2008, following the completion of Brendan’s Eagle Project, he, his sister Danielle and father, David, were guests on “The Catholic Corner,” the diocesan television show hosted by Msgr. Walter Nolan. David and Brandon described the library of resources the younger Rizzo had created, then showed the rudimentary parts of what would eventually become the Adaptive First Eucharist Kit.
The kit, published by Loyola Press in 2011 and the winner of the 2012 Association of Catholic Publishers Excellence in Publishing Award, uses PECS and other hands-on components to instruct its users in the finer points of the liturgy. The Adaptive First Eucharist Kit is comprised of eight parts:
• The “My Picture Missal” flip book and Mass picture cards are for use during Mass; they help the user focus upon the liturgy and encourage participation.
• The “Bless Yourself” matching puzzle helps the user to make the sign of the Cross. It can be paired with a parent or catechist’s modeling to become an imitational tool.
• The “Who is Jesus?” instructional story teaches the child that Jesus is the Son of God and relates God’s family to their own.
• The “Communion is Not the Same as Food” matching puzzle helps the user tell the difference between the Eucharist and ordinary food.
• The “How to Receive Communion” matching puzzle serves as a practice guide to receiving Communion reverently.
• The “I Receive Communion” picture book reinforces the reverence and actions performed to receive Communion.
• A helper guide aids parents or catechists in the kit’s use.
• A backpack enables the individual to take the components to Mass or religious instruction classes.
The National Directory for Catechesis continues, “All persons with disabilities or special needs should be welcomed in the church. Every person, however limited, is capable of growth in holiness. The Church’s pastoral response… is to learn about the disability, offer support to the family, and welcome the child.”
The Rizzos, through their creation of the Adaptive First Eucharist Kit, have exhibited their Church’s support of her most vulnerable citizens.