I understand the sentiments of those who say a special needs child is an “angel,” but understanding what they mean doesn’t mean I agree with what I understand.
The sentiment implies that simply because of their special needs, these children are angelic creatures. This idea, while sweet, does not honor the challenging reality parents, caregivers, future spouses, and children face when loving special needs individuals. It also does not adequately prepare the special needs child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, not as an angel, but as the saint he is intended to become.
A Catholic Conference on Catechesis & Special Needs
Fortunately, the Catholic Church has long promoted the fact that all people are created in the image and likeness of God Himself and therefore worthy of dignity independent of age, skin color, race, creed, ability, or other variables. While the Catholic Church has long recognized the dignity of the disabled person, Catholics can do better reaching out to and providing for our disabled brothers and sisters.
In an effort to discover how to better provide that outreach and provision, a conference entitled “Catechesis and Persons with Disabilities: A Necessary Engagement in the Daily Pastoral Life of the Church,” was held in Rome from October 20-22, 2017. The conference included individuals from around the world, many of whom have physical and/or mental handicaps.
One of the attendees was Martin Benton, a Catholic husband, father, and grandfather, who also has cerebral palsy. Benton and his wife Janice are active in the New Evangelization. They recognize in a special, personal way, that in the Church’s evangelization must also include the disabled and their families.
Janice Benton, OFS was recently quoted in The Crux as saying, “That idea of ‘they’re angels’… is a disservice to the person, because just like us, they’re human beings, and just like us, they’re called to encounter Christ through the sacraments, to be fully part of the body of Christ, and are also called to holiness.”
The Call to Holiness & Those with Special Needs
When reading Part Three Life in Christ, Section One Man’s Vocation Life in the Spirit, Chapter One The Dignity of the Human Person, Article One Man in the Image of God, of the Catholic Catechism, we see the beauty of all mankind. This beauty includes people of all abilities.
In the first line (CCC 1701), we are reminded that man is made in the image and likeness of God. Then throughout Article One we see words like, “disfigured,” “divided,” and “damaged;” however, these terms do not simply refer to those who do not move or think as we do but to all of us. It is sin that causes disfigurement, division, and damage within each of us. We see this more intensely in other words used in this portion of the Catechism, strong words like “wounded,” “subject to error,” and “inclined to evil.” (CCC 1714)
Yet no believer would deny that she is called to holiness. Special needs individuals are no less called. They too are created in the image and likeness of God. They too are disfigured, divided, and damaged, but not in the way we see with human eyes. They are human beings damaged by sin. They are often further damaged, not by their sin, but by the sin of those around them who take advantage of, abuse, or ignore them.
The Catholic Church must go beyond simply not “further damaging” to actively loving and providing true belonging. We must show the world that these individuals, who are aborted at the rate of 80-94%, are not to be tolerated but instead are to be loved because they belong here just as much as the rest of us do.
The Communion of Saints & Our Role in Welcoming the Disabled
“Man in the Image of God” begins to show us how we are to interact with those of special needs. CCC 1702 reminds us that,
The divine image is present in every man. It shines forth in the communion of persons, in the likeness of the unity of the divine persons among themselves.
We are thus reminded to see the divinity of Christ present in every man. We are reminded that there is a desire to be part of the Communion of Saints shining longingly within each of us. There is an end goal that results in absolute unity in Christ.
To be holy ourselves, we must see the holiness in others. We are members of One Body, the perfect Body of Christ. There is no division in that Body. There is no sprinter or cripple. There is no genius or retard. There are only sinners created to become saints. By reaching out to our brothers and sisters with disabilities, we unite the Body of Christ, serve the Lord more fully, and ourselves become more complete.
The Path to Heaven for Special Needs Children
Some seem to think there is one path to Heaven, with fast passes awarded to those who attend Sunday Mass and CCD classes, as dictated by local authorities. Some make excuses for special needs individuals who cannot do so. They assume that, because a child has Down syndrome and is unable to process readings, homework, and discussions as we do, she should not attend or should be excused from advancing in her love of the Lord. Perhaps some feel the special needs child does not need to attend. Perhaps some feel she will get to Heaven on her own because she is, after all, “an angel.”
Many special needs individuals have a connection to God the rest of us do not. They see, hear, and understands things with a Wisdom we cannot grasp, but thinking this alone is enough is not helpful to our salvation, their salvation, or our daily lives.
Special needs individuals face challenges the rest of us do not. They need to know of unconditional Love and the Redemption of the Lord at least as much as the rest of us. Saint Pope John Paul II in the homily quoted above, talked of waiting for Redemption saying,
Without faith, this waiting can be tinged with disappointment and discouragement; supported by Christ’s word, it becomes a living and active hope…
By your presence, dear brothers and sisters, you reaffirm that disability is not only a need, but also and above all a stimulus and a plea. Of course, it is a request for help, but even before that it is a challenge to individual and collective selfishness; it is an invitation to ever new forms of brotherhood. By your situation you call into question those conceptions of life that are solely concerned with satisfaction, appearances, speed and efficiency.
The Saint’s words remind us of those in the Catechism which say,
Endowed with a spiritual soul, with intellect and with free will, the human person is from his very conception ordered to God and destined for eternal beatitude. He pursues his perfection in seeking and loving what is true and good. (GS 15 § 2)
Too often we define intellect and free will by our own standards assuming those different from us have useless intellect and zero free will. Too often, in our concern for satisfaction, appearances, speed, and efficiency, we forget that pursuing perfection means seeking what is true and good. Too often we fail to recognize that seeking what is true and good seldom comes from looking at our own gifts and abilities and instead comes from looking at those who challenge our application of virtue.
Special Needs Individuals Are Active Parts of the Body of Christ
The disabled can truly love and serve the Lord when given the opportunity to do so. They serve, not as angels, but as children of God.
In 2005, the National Directory for Catechesis stated that, “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.”
We see the amazing examples of this in places like Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb, which is a contemplative community of religious sisters in France where many sisters have Down syndrome. These women are still called by God and know of His special joy and love. They live side by side with other sisters who have no such disabilities, and they are taught to do tasks and serve in small ways.
They know God does not judge them based on what they do not have, but on what they do with the faith they have been given and how they strive to grow. We must learn from them.
Your special needs child is no angel. That is not a statement of accusation but one of fact. A disabled child is not an angel. He is a child, pure and simple, nothing more and nothing less! Because he is a child of God, he deserves and needs to be formed in the Catholic faith. He needs to, not just feel he is part of the Catholic community, but be part of our Catholic community.
To enter the Kingdom of God, a special needs individual must be properly Catechized, not according to cookie cutter standards but as individuals created by the same Potter who molded the abled. He must be taught love first and foremost.
Perhaps it is also true that for those of us without disabilities to enter the Kingdom of God, each of us must do all we can to ensure that catechizing takes place in whatever form catechizing is needed for each individual special child of God. We must be sure that our special needs brothers and sisters and their families are not just included in our parishes, but know they belong there too.
A Special Needs Special Request…
I have a friend whose autistic, epileptic son, Riley, turns 16 in December. Homeschooling and special needs challenges have isolated this child of God, and he has few friends. His family wants to give him a “Sweet 16” to remember by giving him as many birthday cards as possible to show him people care. If you are interested in sending a card, please mail it to me at the address below. Cards must be received by December 1st to be sure I deliver them to Riley in time for his birthday!
Kerri Lynn Bishop
PO Box 778
Hyde Park, NY 12538
Also, please add this special family to your prayers this Advent! Thank you!