World-wide the month of April is recognized as “Autism Awareness” month. However, this April it takes on a new meaning in light of the COVID-19 crisis and I hope perhaps creates an opportunity for empathy and understanding since this world-wide pandemic has in a sense disabled all of us from our typical way of life.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or autism is a developmental disorder that affects a person's social communication and interaction. Individuals with ASD also have restricted and repetitive behavior, interests and activities. These characteristics fall across a "spectrum" ranging from mild to severe. While one person may have symptoms that impair his or her ability to perform daily activities, another may have only mildly noticeable differences and have few, if any, functional impairments. According to the Centers for Disease Control, autism affects an estimated 1 in 54 children in the United States today. In New Jersey that number is 1 in 32.
How do the above statistics relate to us as a Catholic Church community? Let’s say for example if a Parish has 100 members that means that at least 3 of them will have ASD. How are those 3 families treated within the Church community? Do they feel welcomed, supported? Or do they forgo participating in Church celebrations because their child’s or family member’s behavior deviates from the norm? Although it is not consistently practiced in every Parish, the Catholic Church DOES provide clear and concise guidance regarding how persons with disabilities CAN participate in the celebration of the sacraments. There are Catholic guides and religious formation curriculums that already exist to provide access to the sacraments to disabled members. Nonetheless, what is lacking is a uniform willingness to implement these tools from Parish to Parish.
The words adaptability and accessibility are predominant in The National Directory for Catechesis (NDC). NDC chapter 5, part 36, subsection 3b-3 states that: “Catholics with disabilities have the right to participate in the sacraments as full functioning members of the local ecclesial community. All forms of the liturgy should be completely accessible to persons with disabilities, since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together.” Even without the above references, as followers of Jesus, we instinctively and explicitly know from His most basic teachings that the message of salvation is for ALL. We know that Jesus wants our mentally and physically challenged brothers and sisters to be full participants within the Church community. Jesus wants these members to feel loved and supported by the Church. Think about the solace and hope we feel from our faith life. Do we really think that God wants our most vulnerable members to be excluded from that experience?
The message of Jesus is a message of love and mercy. We are all important to God and He has a purpose for each of us, no matter our physical or mental abilities. Therefore, we all are called to work towards our holiness gradually each day. Our call to holiness is not meant to confine us, but to liberate us. As Pope Francis said: “God wants us to be saints and not settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” When we strive for holiness we are more of ourselves not less. All of us within our limits are called to pursue our holiness. As a Church community, we need to strive to bring this message to ALL members not just the ones that fit the “typical” parameters.
Written by Ylaisa Tejada, Confirmation Catechists and Coordinator of Religious Education for children with disabilities in Saint Lucy's Church