For disabled Catholics, an inclusive religious education

Many priests and parishes don’t know what guidance to offer people with special needs.
In the Pews

When Wendy Zimmerman wanted to join her boyfriend, Eddie Knack, for Sunday Mass, it took some doing.

Zimmerman has an intellectual disability that precludes her from driving and living fully independently. So over four weeks, a staff member from Zimmerman’s group home attended church with the couple. Each time the worker explained to Zimmerman where to exit in an emergency and where the restroom is so that Zimmerman would feel safe and comfortable. 

Now Zimmerman and Knack attend Mass on their own. They sit right up front.

“That way we can see Father Mike,” Zimmerman says. “I feel welcome going to that church.” 

Pope Francis would be happy to hear that.


Last year in Rome the pontiff forcefully affirmed the presence of people with special needs in the church.

“Think of a priest who does not welcome everyone,” he said. “What advice would the pope give him? Close the doors of the church! Either everyone or no one.”

Pope Francis spoke these words to an audience of catechists who teach people with special needs. Special needs is a term that typically includes Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injury, and other intellectual disabilities. 

For people with special needs, abstract thinking about theology may be difficult, or standard elements of Mass like candles and certain songs may seem frightening. These invisible disabilities may cause people to behave oddly or to be disruptive in any setting, but when these behaviors happen during church—a place where many expect quiet reverence—that can create conflict. 

Still, the pope’s exhortation is unwavering. 


“We all have the same possibility of growing, moving forward, loving the Lord, doing good things,” he said. Pope Francis added that a pastor who says his parish cannot provide special religious education classes “must convert.” 

While the pope’s words may sound radical, none other than Jesus urged, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame” (Luke 14:13). While words such as crippled might not be used today, the message is clear. 

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) suggests Catholics go even further than invitation and inclusion. “We’ve seen a shift in recent years, from inclusion to a sense of belonging,” says NCPD executive director Jan Benton. Everyone, she says, belongs in the church. “It isn’t something we have to ask for or be allowed to do. Inclusion, while it’s a good thing, still gives the power to the includer.” 

Belonging has been clearly called for in America over the last half-century. We’ve gradually closed the large-scale institutions that once were the preferred method for housing people with special needs. Family living or group homes in residential neighborhoods are now the norm. In schools, diverse populations learn together. Opportunities for physical activities through programs like the Special Olympics have blossomed around the world. Social programs like dances and cruises have sprung up to serve those with intellectual disabilities. But faith communities haven’t always kept pace. 

When NCPD asked parents of children with autism to share a “best story” of their child’s experience in a parish, these were among the responses: “I wish I could think of some,” “I have yet to experience this,” and “There is no hope in my parish.”

There are, however, many examples of how people with special needs are full members and important parts of our communities. 

“Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live. . . . All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”

It’s an autumn Sunday, and the congregation at Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Pittsburgh sings this song by Marty Haugen. At the same time, a wide and diverse welcome plays out in real time. John, a man with intellectual disabilities, accepts strong handshakes and shoulder pats from the other ushers before they all slide into their reserved pew in the back of the church.


John’s the best-dressed usher today, with a shimmery tie over a slate blue button-down shirt carefully tucked into the pants his sister ironed for him. 

At the offertory, along with the other ushers, John walks along the center aisle with perfect timing, reverently stretching the long-handled wicker basket down each pew to collect donations. 

John has a distinguished role here at church in a way that’s not available to him in, say, a professional career. He’s been an usher for about five years.

Outside Mass, I ask John why he likes being an usher. He says, “To be part of church.” 

John has always felt he belongs at Most Holy Name. In part because he’s been part of a special needs religious education program that started there several decades ago. It began when a couple wanted their three boys, all of whom had special needs, to receive communion. At that time, few parishes helped prepare people with special needs to receive the sacraments.

Cathy Baysek helped change that. She was the director for catechetical education for children at Most Holy Name. She gathered a few volunteers and adapted the catechetical lessons for the three boys with special needs. All three received the sacrament of communion. Over the years Baysek advertised in the bulletin that students with special needs were welcome. Now participants come from as far as 25 miles away.

“We are strictly all volunteer,” she says of the teachers. “Some are certified in the field. Most are not. They’re certified by love.”

One of the teachers at Most Holy Name’s special religious education program is Patty Schirra. She drives here from across town. Her call started with her now-deceased son, Nick, who was born with Down syndrome and later diagnosed with leukemia. Schirra wanted him to receive the sacraments of reconciliation and communion. She giggles a little as she recalls that Nick needed a church community to help support him with his habit of pulling fire alarms. 

“They’ve done so much, and I don’t even belong to this parish,” Schirra said. “When I asked our church to help us, they handed us a book.”

Nick couldn’t read, but Schirra says she did try to use the images in the book to explain to Nick the value of the sacrament. He just wasn’t getting it, she says. His mind wasn’t letting him envision the idea that he would be receiving Christ. The book included a picture of a young boy receiving communion. But, she says, Nick repeatedly asked, “Who’s that boy?” She told him that it could be him. He still wasn’t making the connection. Schirra had an aunt who went to Most Holy Name. The older woman suggested that her niece bring Nick on Saturdays. Teacher Kim Young used the CCD book with the image of the boy receiving communion a little differently. She snapped photos of the parish priest and one of Nick and pasted photos of their faces on the corresponding images in the book. It worked. 

“He was like, wow, that’s me,” Schirra says.

Once Nick could envision himself approaching the altar, he still had to overcome the idea of consuming the Eucharist.

“That was a tough one,” Schirra says. “He did not want to put that in his mouth. Certain textures he would spit out.”

The teacher traveled to Schirra’s home to help him practice. She broke off a corner of an unconsecrated host and gave it to him, increasing the size until Nick was ready. When the real first communion day arrived, Schirra was nervous Nick might make a scene. But the boy had no qualms. 

“When he made his communion, he was so serene,” Schirra says. 

Schirra says Nick gained independence in the program. He went on to his own ministries, in and out of church, over the next several years. He was an altar server. He volunteered at a food bank and a senior home.

The special religious education program at Most Holy Name, Schirra said “made it possible for Nick to do things he may never have done.” 

Nick died in 2014 when he was 21. A priest who was involved with the special religious education classes celebrated Nick’s funeral Mass.

A few months after Nick’s passing, Patty returned to help at Most Holy Name. “I will continue to do this program as long as I can,” she says. 

Looking back, Schirra still questions whether she should have reacted differently to her church’s response when she sought communion for Nick years ago. 

“I don’t know if I didn’t fight hard enough,” she says. “But you shouldn’t have to fight for that. Someone should be able to give you guidance.”

Schirra isn’t the only one who found that many priests and parishes don’t know what guidance to offer people with special needs. 

Sixty-three percent of parishes have adapted educational resources for students with disabilities, according to research from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in Washington, D.C. Experts say that’s an improvement, but not where parishes need to be. 

Last year CARA surveyed U.S. parishes about how they serve people with disabilities. It was the first comprehensive study of its kind. Only 3 of 10 parishes have a staff member responsible for parish efforts to serve people with disabilities, researchers found.

One important conclusion, says report author Jonathon Holland, is that “people with physical disabilities are well taken care of in the church, but people with intellectual disabilities, maybe not so much.”

The CARA study offers some suggestions. “While pastors seem to be well aware that increased resources would assist them in accommodating persons with disabilities in their parishes,” the report says, “they seem less aware that including persons with disabilities on committees or in ministerial roles in their parishes may be another way to increase the likelihood of their parish making needed accommodations.”

It almost sounds like Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. A single relationship can set off a chain reaction, just like it did 50 years ago at Most Holy Name in Pittsburgh when three kids needed special help. 

Most Holy Name’s program is still held in the parish school on Saturday mornings. On a recent day about 30 students took part. Some people who have intellectual as well as physical disabilities arrive by van and wheelchair. A few students walk. John, the usher, and his sister Dorothy, who also has special needs, get a ride from someone in the neighborhood.

Inside the school, the students rotate through three classrooms. In one they sing and learn sign language. In another, they study the gospel readings or saints and discuss how to do good deeds. In a third room, they make a craft together. 

In the music room today, the guitar player’s set list includes “Day by Day,” and The Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright.” The latter offers ample opportunity for students to participate by singing the full song, just clapping, or uttering a few “do-do-dos.” No matter how much the students participate, all receive praise for being part of the class.

Across the hall, a set of teachers describe Jesus as the shepherd and the rest of us as the sheep. They glue cotton balls onto outlines of sheep to drive home the message 

“When you’re making your sheep, you can think about what it means to be a sheep,” the teacher says. 

“Yeah, sometimes I feel like a lost sheep,” says Dorothy. The teacher confesses that she does, too. 

In another room, a boy who has autism gets a physically active one-on-one lesson about David and Goliath from teacher Kim Young. He tosses small rubber balls at a square made of painter’s tape—a corollary to throwing stones at giants. 

“Would David have won without God’s help?” Young asks the boy.

“No!” the boy shouts. 

“Can you ask God for help?” Young says. 

“No,” the child responds again, but by mid ‘O,’ he changes his answer to “Yes!”

Besides the Saturday program, Baysek and the other volunteers also help organize a Mass in the spring tailored to celebrate people with disabilities. John’s participation there led to his regular ministry as an usher.

At the spring Mass “he would always ask to be an usher in his own way,” Baysek says. “And the ushers said, ‘Why doesn’t he do it all the time?’ Which is what I was hoping for all along.”

The program provides service opportunities to all the students. The group creates handmade cards for shut-ins. Baysek says the students often craft a playful card with a game, directing the reader to follow the circle and see what’s in the middle. 

The students, Baysek says, “find great happiness in doing something for someone else.”

John’s sister Dorothy says the program is a blessing for both her and her brother. “This is like Johnny’s second home,” she says. “It’s the only activity he has. He needs a place to go.”

And the program helps her with her own issues as well, Dorothy says. “It’s helped me to figure out my emotions, because I suffer from depression,” she says. “They help me think more [kindly] of myself as I’m getting older. It’s more like a family.” 

And while John has his usher ministry, Dorothy also has her role. “I belong to a prayer chain,” she says. “I help out with the Christian Mothers. We just help if somebody needs help with something like Bingo.” She says she likes being more aware of other’s problems. 

Like John and Dorothy, many people with special needs want to go further with ministry when they feel comfortable in church. 

In Washington, D.C.’s L’Arche Community, Hazel Pulliam got interested in a Haiti Committee. She’s packaged note cards and helped design bulletin flyers by selecting the photos and font colors. In Portland, Oregon L’Arche core member Marilyn Petruzzelli became the first associate member of the Sisters of the Holy Names who has developmental disabilities. She’s committed to live out her ministry by visiting the sisters, volunteering at an animal shelter, and helping with a tree sale at L’Arche. 

In Youngstown, Ohio a Catholic Worker community provided one young woman with slight learning disabilities a path to service and deeper spirituality. 

“She was quite a joy to be around as she worked to serve meals to our guests,” says Vicki Turowski Vicars, who helped found the Dorothy Day House, which mainly serves homeless people. “Volunteering with us gave her the confidence to sign up for a diocesan mission trip. She actually went twice. Eventually she found a job at a local fast food restaurant.”

Of course, not everyone with special needs will be able to be so active. But those who have the most severe disabilities have often simply needed—and returned—God’s love through their mere presence. 

“It’s a felt sense and being with you in a very nonjudgmental way,” says Ellen Eischen, of L’Arche USA, which is made up of homes where people with intellectual disabilities live with their assistants. 

That it can be sacred to simply be with someone who can only be present was the crux of the book Adam: God’s Beloved, by Father Henri Nouwen. It was about a profoundly disabled L’Arche resident who inspired spiritual development in many people who spent time with him.

One of Eischen’s first experiences with L’Arche was at the house where Adam lived. “I was coming from the college setting where interaction was so much about communicating by talking with each other,” she says. “I learned about the inherent gift of being.”

L’Arche founder Jean Vanier says people with special needs are our teachers, not burdens on family, society, or church. 

“We have come to recognize they are more like us than different than us,” says Sister Marge Burkle, a Dubuque Franciscan who ran her diocesan disabilities program for many years. “The bottom line is they just have to be given the chance. Life changes for them and for us when we give them the chance.”

This article also appears in the May 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 5, pages 28–33).

Image: Ryan Haggerty

About the author

Jennifer Szweda Jordan

Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a longtime journalist and founder of Unabridged Press. She's on Twitter @jeniferpossible,  lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is an associate with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.

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