Sacramental Preparation for Persons with Disabilities
He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me
welcomes him who sent me --Matthew 10:40
In order to be loyal to its calling, and to be truly pastoral, the parish must make sure that is does not exclude any Catholic who wishes to take part in its activities (Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities, November 1978; revised 1989).
The goal for every parish in the Archdiocese is to make its activities and facilities accessible to all.
Inviting Children and Adults with Disabilities into the Catechetical Process
All parishes in the Archdiocese welcome and accept all people with special needs into their sacramental preparation programs so that all people receive the sacraments at the appropriate time.
The parish is the door to participation for all individuals, including those with disabilities and it is the responsibility of the pastor/pastoral life director and leaders to make sure the door is always open.
Discerning Readiness for the Celebration of the Sacraments
Most children and adults with disabilities can benefit from instruction that is identical to their peers (without disabilities) or that is modified slightly to take into account physical and learning needs.
For some children and adults with severe to profound cognitive disabilities, however, it may not be possible to achieve their peers’ level of readiness for the sacraments. However, this should not prevent them from receiving the sacraments. Our Church law is the life giving law of the Holy Spirit intended to be interpreted flexibly, for the benefit of people. If we err, it is better to err on the part of being too open rather than too closed.
For the sacraments of Christian initiation in particular, if in doubt the sacrament should be conferred; and the faith of the family/community fills what may be lacking in the faith of the individual” (Opening Doors, Volume II, National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities, 1987). “Disability alone does not disqualify a person from receiving the sacraments. Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament” (Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities 20). If doubt still persists, please contact the Division of Evangelization and Catechesis for consultation.
Through Baptism, we enter into the life of Christ, the life of the Church and the life of the community. “Because it is the sacrament of universal salvation, Baptism is to be made available to all who freely ask for it, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law to receive it. Disability, of itself, is never a reason for deferring Baptism” (Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities 9).
Code of Canon Law and Baptism
- Canon 843 states that the sacraments cannot be refused to a person who asks for them is properly disposed.
- Canon 865 clearly states that any person who is not yet baptized may be baptized. Even those individuals with severe cognitive impairment who have not attained the “use of reason” may be baptized since such individuals at any age are equivalent to infants.
- In such cases, the consent of one parent or guardian is required. (Canon 868) provided that the individual is brought up in the Catholic faith.
If the person with a disability is older, the usual process of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is to be followed. (For children ages 7-18, use the Rite of Christian Initiation of Children of Catechetical Age, Part II of the RCIA). Reasonable accommodations are made according to the needs and cognitive level of the individual.
“By the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1285).
“Persons who because of developmental or mental disabilities may never attain the use of reason are to be encouraged either directly, or if necessary, through their parents or guardian, to receive the sacrament of Confirmation at the appropriate time.” (Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Person with Disabilities 16).
Those to be confirmed are baptized persons who have not been confirmed and are capable of receiving Confirmation (Canon 889). Any person with a disability who is baptized and participates in a community according to his or her ability is an active member of the Church. Each is confirmed as a member according to his or her ability.
“The celebration of the Eucharist is the center of the entire Christian life.”
It can be difficult to determine readiness for Eucharistic participation in children who may have social, communication, or cognitive disabilities. Since the Eucharist is a sacrament of Christian Initiation, all baptized Catholics who are in good standing have a fundamental right to share in Eucharistic communion.
Readiness for the sacrament of the Eucharist is indicated by:
- Relationship with people of faith;
- A desire for friendship and closeness of the Lord;
- A sense of the sacred as demonstrated in behavior.
Family members or catechists often recognize these moments of reverence. These constitute sufficient disposition for reception of the Eucharist.
“It is important to note…that the criterion for reception of Holy Communion is the same for persons with developmental disabilities and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely that the person to be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally” (Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities 20).
If a child or adult with significant cognitive limitations is unable to understand that the consecrated host is not ordinary bread, it is permissible for them to receive the Eucharist in order to support the faith of the family. One can presume that it is God’s desire to be in communion with this individual. (Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities 20).
It must be determined if the communicant is able to receive the consecrated host or a portion of it. Water should be available for those who have difficulty swallowing.
Individuals with cognitive disabilities are subject to human limitations and sinfulness. It is a myth that people with disabilities are incapable of sin, even if their disability makes it difficult for them to control their behavior. They can experience a lack of love, selfishness, loneliness and alienation. Some can understand what it means to be sorry for their participation in negative behavior. Penance can be a source of strength and a rich experience for individuals with cognitive impairments.
The elements of the sacrament of Reconciliation to emphasize with a person with cognitive impairments are: a feeling of sorrow, a knowledge, even limited, that someone was hurt by their actions; and a willingness to try to avoid the hurtful action in the future.
“As long as the individual is capable of having a sense of contrition for having committed sin, even if he or she cannot describe the sin precisely in words, the person may receive sacramental absolution” (Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities 23).