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The Disability of Underdeveloped Faith

On impediments to catechesis.

What is the most severe disability, the greatest impediment to learning and growing in faith, which a child seeking the sacraments might experience? I ask this question for a specific reason. Earlier this month a young woman whom I have been giving one-to-one catechesis—we shall call her Helena—received the Sacrament of Confirmation. It is the second time in my religious life I have catechized a young person with what would be considered a serious disability for this sacrament, having prepared a young man with autism and learning difficulties—we shall call him Alec—two years ago. I am sure you are expecting me to say that both times it was a terribly fulfilling and rewarding thing to do, and indeed it was, but as a fundamentally lazy and unsentimental person I am more keen to tell you that it was also one of the easiest and most straightforward things I have ever done.

Both Helena and Alec practiced their Catholic faith, desired a closer relationship with Christ through the sacraments of His Church, and were willing to learn more according to their capacity. As catechist, I simply had to determine that they had the required disposition, that they understood what God would be doing in the sacrament (insofar as any of us can be said to understand the operation of grace), and that they were able to make the Profession of Faith with freedom and conviction. Because both had unusual styles of communication (Helena is non-verbal; Alec is very verbal, just not in a way that’s easy to make sense of) it took me a little while to determine the best way for them to learn and the best way for me to work out what was sticking and what wasn’t. I leaned heavily on the wisdom and counsel of their parents to guide me.

It was, in short, catechesis in its purest and most authentic form: the person-to-person transmission of ecclesial faith, through a process of teaching, personal witness, and ongoing accompaniment, which is preceded and supported by the formation received in the domestic church and culminates in a genuine encounter with Christ in the sacraments.

I was led to consider the question that I have just posed to you: what is the disability that most severely impedes a child when it comes to catechesis? Every so often I receive an email or phone call from a parish catechist who is concerned that they’ve just hit upon the answer. A family has signed up for First Holy Communion prep whose child has Down syndrome; there’s a mother in the parish who insists her teenage son is ready for Confirmation, even though there’s no way he can sit still through the weekly preparation sessions. The catechist has contacted me to ask for help and advice, and to express the concern that they have no idea how to make this work. When I receive this emails, I sit back, close my eyes, and remember Helena and Alec making their Professions of Faith at their respective Confirmations—Alec stating his assent so loudly I thought the roof of the church would blow off; Helena signing clearly and emphatically in Makaton, smiling radiantly as she did so—and then I reflect on the fact that these parish catechists are, all things being equal, deeply and intimately familiar with the experience of standing in front of a class of fifty children or teenagers who haven’t been to Mass since the last churchy rite of passage their parents forced them through, in whom the light of faith has been permitted to sputter and fade, and who consequently do not understand why they are there or quite simply do not want to be there at all.

The fact that this latter situation is one that catechists confidently take in their stride—something normal and expected, simply what we do in parish catechesis—and yet having to adapt catechesis to the needs and communication style of a faith-filled child with a disability is not, strikes me as bizarre. Helena and Alec’s disabilities did not impede them from receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation in authentic freedom and with the necessary disposition. But I cannot say the same of the vast majority of teenagers I have catechized, or attempted to catechize, for Confirmation: young people who could walk, talk, and achieve straight As at their mainstream school, but whose baptismal faith had not grown and developed as it should, and who came into my Confirmation class with their ability to live that faith severely impeded.

This is my answer to the question: the disability that most severely impedes a child when it comes to catechesis, the most severe barrier to learning and understanding that a child can face in sacramental preparation, is one that the vast majority of children going through sacramental preparation programs suffer from anyway—the spiritual disability of underdeveloped faith. What this means is every parish catechist trying to accommodate faithless children into its sacramental programs is currently practicing a particularly difficult form of disability ministry; and in the meantime, those of us who work in the formation of faith-filled disciples who happen to have some physical or cognitive difficulties are having an absolute ball in comparison.

If this seems like a novel or even controversial way of thinking about the issue of disability and parish ministry this is because, I would suggest, the structure of sacramental preparation in the United States and Europe is one that has over time slowly distorted our understanding of what catechesis is and what—or, rather, who—it is for. It has shifted our focus away from the thing itself to the barnacles that have accrued on the hull: being the expected age and no older, filling out the form correctly, sitting through the classes and learning in the same way as everyone else, regardless of whether faith is present or God is desired. By refusing to fit into this perverse structure, children and young people with disabilities—people like Helena and Alec, or an autistic boy at your parish Family Mass, or the child turned away from the sacramental preparation class, the youth group, the C.C.D. program—offer the faithful a great service: the opportunity to think properly about what catechesis is in principle, and actually put it into practice in the way the Church intends.