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Your Special Needs Child is No Angel

November 25, AD2017

special needs

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.

Moving Ahead

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!

God Bless…

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Strahlen is a single mom of five boys. The fifth little guy was a surprise pregnancy and her husband left suddenly in the middle of it for a woman he met on Facebook. The next few years would bring financial, emotional, and spiritual challenges beyond her imagining, but they would also bring a faith she never knew existed.

Strahlen is now a life coach working with women in transition and hopes to reach out to other divorced Catholics to let them know there is Hope and Love in the Catholic church.

Today, she and her five sons work hard for everything that comes their way, but they are also successful, happy, and faithful. They enjoy camping, sports, and (highly competitive) board games. And if you’re wondering about that last little Baby Boy – He is a bundle of giggles and goofiness. He is such a gift to his mother and brothers and he constantly proves that God’s plans are greater than our own! Check out more of their story at Single Mom Smiling.

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  • adam aquinas

    Ma’am, I find that thus post to be quite mean-spirited, non-scriptural or theologically based and solopsistic. It is accepted in Catholicism that angels are a differently designed species from humans. It is also biblically sound that in many instances, angels served as messengers and as such they took on human form.. Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, is quite explicit that angels can take on human form. Who are you to say that the severely disabled child is not a message provider, a shape shifter, taking on a human form to teach about the value and need for unconditioned love. Yes, a disabled child could be an angel. If not in in reality, who are you to destroy a parents perception that their severely child is not an angel.
    I have a severely disabled child, non-mobile and non-verbal, who can only receive love and care. He is a messenger, an angel in human form and a teacher. If you cannot move, cannot speak, cannot communicate how should he be evangelized. It is not possible. He cannot sin and the myth of original sin is debunked by evolution and reason. If all you can do is be, you cannot sin….you are pure, spotless and angelic. How can you dare take away belief from parents of severely disabled children? Your allegations are spurious, trite and have no place in any religion. T
    Catholicism is among the least inclusive of religions when it comes to the severely disabled.. I know and have experienced it. When my mom died, there was no wheelchair ramp to bring my son to the service because “Father” felt it would corrupt the architecture of the church, as if God would really care. There was no wheelchair cutout in the pews, so his chair was planted in the main aisle for people to walk around and stare. There were stairs by “good Catholics.” Not what I consider welcoming! No ASL interpreter, no braille hymnals or prayer books, no nothing to enable the handicapped. This scenario is often repeated and often with a glare from the kind “fathers.” All are equal, but some less so than others.
    So if a parent who cares for a severely disabled child 24/7/365 and provides for every need of child….they are justified in caring for their “angels.”
    Perhaps in your arrogance and ableism you you have never encounter an angel in human form…I have and they are real and they are messengers. This post is immoral, insulting and should be removed..

    • Did you read the article or just the headline?

    • Larry Bud

      In addition, who wrote it? Kerri Lynn Bishop or Strahlen Smith?

    • Sorry for the confusion Larry. Strahlen Smith is a pen name I used for a variety of reasons Now, I believe God is calling me to use my birth name so am coming away from Strahlen. I’ll change my bio in the new year. I just have to get through the holidays first. Hope you check back in then!

      In the meantime, Happy Advent to you and your loved ones.

      God Bless…

  • YoikesAndAway

    So those who use the term angel is causing much offense on others? Who would have thought this moniker of love and innocence could rile up people. Can people acknowledge that calling a disabled child an angel is the same as any parent who calls their child an angel. So frankly, the push here to end this use shows a displaced hostility that those who are so offended need to do some personal work.

    Disabled individuals most definitely should be welcomed and participate in all aspects of the church and faith. However, they themselves should be able to determine what that participation encompasses. Never should they be placed, guided, forced into a situation that others determine for them. Then there is a serious issue within the church that was not touched on here. Those who will deny the disabled their full right to the sacraments. This includes priests themselves doing as such.

    When I volunteered at a catholic founded children’s rehabilitation hospital 10 yrs ago, I became aware of a great sin committed by priests that left me dumbfounded. Children who were mentally disabled beyond autism, were not allowed to make their first Communion. The priest would not allow it because their mental capacities were not sufficient to understand FULLY the significance of the Eucharist. This does not mean that the children had no concept of God, Jesus, etc, but simply because their mental faculties were not the same as other children. So what is to happen to such children spiritually, when their own religion denies them that which they preach is so important, necessary for life everlasting? What is the state of their souls in this life and in the afterlife when they are excluded from their religion/sacraments? Are they damned? Are they non-persons, does God save them anyway, do they go to purgatory? I do not recall reading in the Bible, nor attributed to Jesus that only those who have a certain level of mental capacity are called to receive.

    So let us look at the situation in another way. Parents have a child that for whatever reason will not develop mentally as other children. In fact the child will not develop mentally beyond that of a child regardless of physical age. A perpetual child in most regards. The parents are catholic, believe and participate in their church and practice their faith. They have a child they want to receive the sacraments as any parent wants of their child. They approach their church to enroll their child in CCD and are told that since their child is unable to understand FULLY the faith, they will be unable to make their first Communion and hence any sacramental initiation that follows. So how are the parents to reconcile their child, a gift from God, not being allowed to obtain all the graces needed for salvation? What happens to their child that they love and cherish? There are two options then one has to ponder. Is my child therefore in a perpetual state of grace thereby due to the nature of their disability they do not require the sacraments? Or, is the RCC by denying the sacraments indicating that this child is unsavable, an abomination and therefore unworthy to be saved by Christ?

    This is why parents call their disabled child an angel, perpetual innocent before God. There is no other heavenly realm of which we know to place these pure souls especially when our own church fails them. So before someone gets offended because those children, perpetual children at heart, has someone(s) who loves them enough, cares for them, believes in God, Jesus, and Heaven that they call them angels realize the full implications and act of faith it really is.