Special needs children reveal the face of Jesus

Last week you celebrated a special liturgy at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Mandeville for children and adults with special needs. You confirmed four people and gave first Communion to six others. How did that personally affect you?

It touches me emotionally to spend time walking into the lives of those with special needs, and it also helps me come to better understand the responsibilities of their parents and the ways in which they have to care for them. On a spiritual level, I can say that in the faces of those with special needs, I see the face of Christ. It just makes the presence of Jesus more evident to me. In Jesus’ own time, he would always reach out to those who were in need, and these boys and girls and young men and young women with special needs truly are his children. They are an important part of our faith community.

What do the parents tell you after Mass?

They’ve been through a lot. I’ve never really talked to any parent who was angry or bitter or asking for pity. The parents I have met have really embraced their child as a gift from God. I guess at some point they would have asked God the question – Why? – but it’s evident to me that it’s not a resounding question that they concentrate on.

You’ve been very clear about the archdiocese being open and welcoming in sacramental preparation for people with special needs.

That’s right. Children and adults with special needs deserve the sacramental life of the church, and they should not be hindered in any way. There are those who would argue and say we’re not exactly sure how much they understand the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, how much they understand of the sacrament of confirmation or what their relationship with God is. I’ll leave that up to God. We have to reach out to them. They have a right to the sacraments. The U.S. bishops’ conference has recently put out a booklet on how we should minister to those with special needs and disabilities. It’s entitled “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities.” It’s a very strong document emphasizing that the Church not only must be present for people with disabilities but we also must do our best in offering them moments of prayer, Mass and the sacraments. The booklet is available at http://www.usccb.org/about/divine-worship/policies/guidelines-sacraments-persons-with-disabilities.cfm

The archdiocese has at least two groups for persons with disabilities: God’s Special Children on the southshore and God’s Northshore Blessings north of the lake. How does that make you feel?

It’s really a blessing to the archdiocese to have these two groups. Joy and Jay Zainey started God’s Special Children on the southshore in 2004, and God’s Northshore Blessings just celebrated its first anniversary. The reason Joy and Jay started their group was because they and many others felt there were some obstacles in attending Sunday Mass with their children having special needs. Many people also felt the church really wasn’t reaching out to those with special needs. I’m delighted that they’ve been doing this for so many years, and now this group on the northshore is also doing wonderful things. Jewell Bayhi of Mary Queen of Peace does the lion’s share of the sacramental preparation, along with Gus Kuntz, and David Mount and Shad Weathersby do a wonderful job with the music ministry.

What about your efforts in schools for students with special needs?

Parents at times have told me that with great sorrow that the Church is not there for their child with special needs. Even with the new steps we are taking to be more inclusive in Catholic education, there’s a lot more that must be done. In some ways, the parents really are correct that the Church is not as present as it should be in our Catholic schools, in our religious education programs and in the sacramental life of the Church. We’re trying our best to correct that – to change that reality. We have initiated some efforts in our Catholic schools to work with those who have special needs. We realize that it’s going to take time, but these steps are the first of many to come.

Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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