Everyone Has a Right to Faith Formation

This is a guest post by David and Mercedes Rizzo.

Danielle at Confirmation
Danielle Rizzo on her Confirmation day

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.

About Joe Paprocki 2742 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.


  1. As a fellow parent of a child with special needs who also writes about her experience, I am often asked to recommend a catechetical resource for special needs children. I am very happy to see that there is one.

  2. I am glad, for your sake, that you have a parish religious education program for special needs available for your daughter. We have had one in our parish for as long as I can remember and I was an assistant in the class, and then an aide for one of the kids that was ‘mainstreamed’ into the 6th grade for Confirmation preparation. Previous to that I had a devoloementally disabled girl in my 6th grade class. For the past few years, I have been teaching 3rd grade which is the year when we have First Holy Communion. This year one of the girls with autism from the special needs class is instead in my class. All this background on me is just to say that I have had experience with special needs kids in parish religious education.

    I was disturbed to think that from your first paragraph that your daughter (or any child) might have been denied sacraments just because there was no formal special needs class available (or at a nearby parish). As parents are the “first and best teachers” of their children, would it not have been acceptable to a parish/pastor that you catechized your children? There is no ‘magic formula’ in parish religious education to say that the catechists are any more able to teach the faith than you (or any Catholic parents) would be. I understand parents wanting the experience of a parish program for their special needs child, but it seems wrong that without a formal special needs class that the children would not be able to ‘make their sacraments.’ In our parish, there is an option for “homeschooling” religious education which I am assuming is extended to all children, special needs or not.

    • Home schooling is a wonderful option. However when one is dealing with severe disability as we were with our non-verbal daughter, we felt it was necessary to have the support and resources of others with expertise in this area. Our daughter’s catechesis was multi-faceted with both a small group “classroom” component and an individualized “at home” component. In fact, it was during the at home sessions that we developed some of the picture based materials that eventually led to our adaptive first eucharist preparation kit. Our parish has always been welcoming and supportive and for that we are grateful.

  3. As a DRE, I agree the Church is a place that we welcome all.
    I’m wondering if other DREs have suggestions on kids with ADHD and autism.
    Right now, one of my catechists is struggling with a child who won’t stop talking and has a hard time sitting still. It’s to the point others in the class can’t learn because he is such a disruption.
    We use Finding God so there are a lot of different activities.
    I’ve talked to the mother who has talked to the kid. She is genuinely concerned. So we want to be welcoming. But, it’s hard when the focus is all on the one child talking non stop. Even the other kids in the class are now asking to learn and they can’t.
    I’d love to see a post on special needs kids and what DREs and catechists can do.

  4. I never comment on internet posts, but I am in the middle of your book and feel compelled to reach out. As the parent of a non speaking child with ASD, who outwardly APPEARS to have a cognitive disability, we have learned through RPM, that many autistics are, in fact, cognitively intact but the problem lies in the outward manifestation, not the internal cognition. Thus, I am bothered by your continued references to austics, especially your own daughter as cognitively disabled and I implore to seek out the blogs written by Ido Kedar (Ido in Autism Land), Emma Zucher Long (Emma’s Hope Book) and Phillip Reyes (Faith Hope Love and Autism) and to look into the possibilities that Soma Mudkapathy’s RPM can unlock in your daughter.

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