by Tom Racunas
In my eight years of working in special-needs ministry, many parents and grandparents who have a child (including an adult child) with a disability have shared with me their heartache that they and their child do not feel welcomed or valued at church — that they don’t really belong to their parish.
Taking their child, especially one with a more significant disability, to Mass or a parish activity causes great stress and anxiety because their past experience is that people judge them for not being good parents or that their child’s behavior becomes an annoyance to those around them.
They have noticed the stares and the unkind facial expressions.
Sometimes, they have experienced direct confrontation questioning the person’s “suitability.”
Some parents have been told, incorrectly, that it is not possible for their child to receive ongoing faith formation or to receive the sacraments.
So what do these parents do? They quit taking their child to Mass or activities. They no longer attend as a family. Families begin to feel fragmented and isolated.
Not feeling welcomed or valued as a family, they stop going to church or they find a different church (usually Protestant) that is hospitable.
One mom told me, “They don’t know that we exist.” I don’t think this is the church that Jesus intended.
By virtue of our baptism, we are ALL members of the mystical body of Christ. So shouldn’t we ALL know that we are? Shouldn’t we ALL feel that we belong? Shouldn’t we ALL enjoy the grace that flows forth from this participation?
The office of special-needs ministry wants to ensure that families who have a loved one with a disability never experience a feeling of loneliness and loss. (Our Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine!)
We want to ensure that parishioners have someone in their parish to talk to about their needs. We want to provide someone who cares. We want to provide families with accurate information. Pope Francis challenges us to “reach out into the peripheries.”
To do this, individuals are being asked to volunteer to be a parish advocate. The parish advocate acts on behalf of the parishioners to ensure that all are invited to share in the life of the parish, serving as the channel through which parishioners with disabilities and other members of the parish discover each other.
So far, 17 parishes have an advocate. They are doing some good work in helping families connect with resources to ensure faith formation, sacramental preparation and participation in the liturgy. Three parishes have started a special-needs committee!
If you would like to know more about the role of a parish advocate, I’d be happy to visit with you!