This is a guest post by David and Mercedes Rizzo.
Around the time of our daughter’s fourth birthday, she was diagnosed with autism. We refer to this period as when the autism bomb dropped. When faced with a diagnosis like that many thoughts flood the mind. One of the thoughts we had was how would Danielle be able to make her First Holy Communion and her other sacraments?
We were fortunate that a parish close to our home had a special needs religious education program. What was amazing was its policy that no child would be turned away. We knew that other families traveled some distance to get there, because their own parishes did not have programs. So when our daughter was around five years of age we enrolled her. Week after week Danielle would attend these group sessions. After each lesson was over, we would jump in the car and rush back to our home parish to pick up our two sons from their religious education classes.
We often thought about the families that attended the program with our daughter and how difficult it must have been for them to travel so far, especially when they were juggling religious education commitments for their other children at the same time. The program in the neighboring parish was excellent, and we were grateful to have it so nearby. However, it was important to us that our daughter celebrate her sacraments in the parish where she lived and in the church where we worshipped together every Sunday. Fortunately, we were able to enroll Danielle in our own parish’s program the following year.
Several families we knew who lived quite far away and didn’t have an option for a program in their own parishes did make the long drive to the program. Still there were others who did not. Maybe they felt it was too difficult, too complicated, too far away. Or perhaps they felt that the absence of a local religious education program for children with special needs conveyed a message that they were not welcome.
Everyone has a right to faith formation. When a baby is brought to the church on Baptism day, the parents should feel confident that the church will support the child’s religious education needs and sacramental preparation regardless of cognitive or developmental status. It should be the obligation of the local parish to recognize when accommodations and specialized approaches are needed and to work with parents and their children in the faith formation process.
Paraphrasing Saint Augustine, “Receive that which you are, the body of Christ.” The body of Christ includes all of us.
David Rizzo is a physical therapist who specializes in working with adults and children with developmental disabilities. He and his wife, Mercedes, have four children and live in Marlton, New Jersey. Mercedes and David Rizzo worked with Loyola Press to create the Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit and were contributors to the Adaptive Reconciliation Kit. David is the author of Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs.