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A Truly Special First Communion


[ Feature 1 Photo]
On the day he received Eucharist for the first time, Kevin responded with a very affirmative "Amen!"

Photo Courtesy
of the Maish Family

 


 

In teaching children with special needs about the Catholic faith, this teacher was able to strengthen her own beliefs.

By Alma L. Maish


 Serving the Children

 A Special Program

 A Unique Challenge

 Receiving the Eucharist

"HOME! HOME!" KEVIN CRIED. MY SON, Randy, his wife, Lisa, and I gently pulled Kevin up the altar steps. When we finally stood in front of Father Ron, we wondered if Kevin would be able to do what he had been taught the past seven months. Family, friends and parishioners at Mass that morning watched quietly as we tried to calm him and help him remember why he was there.

Kevin's walk to the altar began the previous year when I asked Lisa, "Have you thought about preparing Kevin to receive the Sacrament of Eucharist?" Her surprised answer was, "Can he? I didn't think they would let him."

Because Kevin was born mentally and physically challenged, Lisa thought he would never be able to receive any sacrament other than Baptism. Kevin was nine, but the Eucharist seemed out of reach for a child like him. However, since he can follow simple directions, understands most of what we are saying (but does not verbalize well), and attends an inclusion program for special-needs children in public schools, I thought he could be prepared to receive the Eucharist.

Serving the Children

I wondered if the Church had restrictions because of his special needs. Could he comprehend what the Eucharist was about? Would his lack of understanding and inability to communicate keep him from receiving the sacraments?

I did some research into canon law regarding mental retardation and found that it is up to the pastor and parents or guardian to prepare the person with a mental handicap to receive the Eucharist. If the person with the handicap can distinguish between ordinary bread and the Body of Christ, the person can receive holy Communion. I was sure Kevin could learn and remember that the bread he ate at home and the bread offered at Mass were not the same.

I explained to Lisa what I had learned about Church law and people who are mentally challenged, and that I planned on asking our religious education director if I could teach the class. I had taught religious education for many years, was active in the parish as a eucharistic minister and Scripture teacher, and I felt that classes could be adapted for Kevin and other children like him, so that they could receive the Eucharist and, possibly, the other sacraments.

Lisa immediately volunteered to be my aide because she had dealt with Kevin's problems at home and in the public schools, and knew from personal experience how to help children who are mentally and physically challenged learn. The students would benefit from her skills and our combined efforts.

When I asked the religious-education director about the possibility of offering a special-needs class, she was overjoyed. Families in the parish wanted their mentally challenged children in the religious-education program, but unless a teacher was willing to work with them, it wasn't possible to offer classes suited to their needs. She advertised the special-education class in the bulletin and called a few parents to let them know we were starting a class.

A Special Program

At that time, the diocese was presenting a workshop outlining the "Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program to Improve Catholic Religious Education for Children and Adults with Mental Retardation." Its philosophy is stated by Eunice Kennedy Shriver:

"Regardless of how fast one learns or how well one can read and write, all of us deserve to share in the gift of faith given by God, and to have the opportunity to contribute in the community of our Church."

Lisa and I attended the workshop and the parish purchased the necessary class materials. We found the program an excellent guide for adapting lessons to the students' needs.

This program challenged our creativity and helped us ground the lessons in Catholic teachings—emphasizing prayer, Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. In teaching the children about the Catholic faith, it strengthened our own beliefs as we searched for different ways of explaining the simple truths of the faith to children who could comprehend only the basics. Repetition was necessary, but it was done in different ways so that we could capture and hold their attention, even if only for a limited time.

The catechist manual used in the Kennedy program quotes from Catechesi Tradendae by Pope John Paul II: "...the Church has always looked on catechesis as a sacred duty and an inalienable right...from the theological point of view every baptized person, precisely by reason of being baptized, has the right to receive from the Church instruction and education enabling him or her to enter on a truly Christian life...In the case of many people with disabilities...we must...make those liturgical adaptations which promote their active participation and provide help and services that reflect our loving concern."

A Unique Challenge

Keeping these words in mind, Lisa and I set out to make this a reality in the parish.

One other child registered for the class, and she was accompanied each time by her mother and older sister. Her learning disability was not the same as Kevin's, and she was able to understand and verbalize much better than he could. Therefore, we adapted each lesson to her needs, as well as Kevin's, repeating lessons or advancing to the next one when they were ready to learn something new. They came to know that the words "love, God and Jesus" were always a part of our lessons. God's love and acceptance for each person through his Holy Spirit were emphasized as the children learned to love God the Father and his son, Jesus, others and themselves.

Having been with Kevin in public settings, I know that mentally challenged children are ostracized, stared at or ignored by adults and other children because they do not understand what makes these children different. Therefore, we always showed them total acceptance and related this acceptance to the way the Lord accepts us. It is the inner person that God sees, the person he created to love and love him in return. If the children did not comprehend anything else, we wanted them to know that God loves them and that their Church community loves and accepts them, too.

We met on Saturday mornings in the church and prayed with the combined religious-education classes and teachers. Other children need to see and accept boys and girls who are mentally challenged as brothers and sisters in Christ—learning, praying and participating in liturgy just the way they do. It is important to include special-needs children as much as possible in parish life since young children learn acceptance and compassion for those who are "different" by interacting with them in different situations.

If these children are visible in parish activities, it helps adults and children accept those challenged by disabilities, and they learn that everyone is created to be loved by God and others as well. As God's children, we are all part of his family and deserve recognition as members of his body.

After the gathering in the church, we walked the students to their classroom and went to the prayer corner, where we had a small altar set up with a Bible, crucifix and candles. We taught the children to bless themselves, hold their hands together for prayer and, even though Kevin couldn't say the words well enough, he followed our lead as we recited the Our Father and Hail Mary and prayed for others. Each child was given a special candle, and each one enjoyed seeing it lit and then blown out after prayer time. This routine was repeated at the end of every class, encouraging prayer and petitions for themselves, their families and others. Thanks and praise to the Lord were a vital part of prayer time in this special, sacred space.

After prayer, we sang a song using physical movements or read a few verses of Scripture, and a lesson was presented to the children. Kevin's attention span is limited, so we let him color or cut paper as he listened. Each time, an activity was encouraged that reinforced the teaching of that day. Sometimes they drew pictures of what they had learned. Then they colored them, cut them out and hung them up around the room. For Advent, we had little mangers with Baby Jesus lying on paper straw that represented deeds of love as preparation for the birth of the Lord. During Lent, we encouraged the children to think of special things to do for their family and friends. The activities and lessons emphasized God's love for everyone, and we listed the many daily blessings in our lives.

Laminated pictures of Jesus, praying hands and other spiritual topics were posted on the walls so that the children knew the room was special for learning about the Lord. The atmosphere was relaxed, and they were allowed to talk and express themselves without any restrictions. It was their classroom, and they laughed, moved around and decorated it. The only time we asked them to be quiet was in the prayer corner. When we put one finger on our lips and lit the candles, they knew it was time to pray.

 



The Mass ended with everyone joyfully praising the Lord for what they had witnessed.

 


 

It was during prayer time that I noticed Kevin centered himself when we said, "Pray." He put his hands together, tilted his head forward and looked down at his hands as his face became relaxed with a pensive look. He tried hard to say the words to the Our Father and Hail Mary, joined in when we gave praise and thanks and was very pleased with himself at the end of prayer time. His face lit up with a beautiful smile as he said in a loud, clear voice, "Amen."

Receiving the Eucharist

In February, we began to take the children into the church to learn how to bless themselves at the entrance with holy water and walk quietly to a pew in the front. We used unconsecrated hosts to teach the children how to receive the Eucharist. Since Kevin has problems coordinating movements, we did not give him Communion in his hand, fearing he would drop the host.

The first time Kevin was given the unconsecrated host, it seemed too large for his mouth, and he spit it out. We tried a smaller piece on his tongue which seemed to work for him. The other child was able to hold the host in her hand and place it in her mouth without difficulty, so she received the Eucharist in that way.

To help Kevin concentrate, I would say, "Pray," each time we practiced coming up to the altar. He put his hands together, came quietly toward me, opened his mouth, received the small piece of unconsecrated host and said in his loud, clear voice, "Amen." The children were ready for their first holy Communion in May.

Knowing Kevin's behavior in church was unpredictable, Lisa chose a weekday Mass for his first holy Communion. There would be fewer distractions and fewer people to be disturbed in case Kevin was too loud.

Kevin is very friendly and shouts, "Hi!" and waves his hand if he sees someone he knows or anyone who smiles at him. He loves being with other children and will try to sit with them if he can. Sometimes he seems to be in his own little world, so we never know when he is going to laugh or talk out loud or get up and try to sit in a different pew.

At Sunday Mass, after the sign of peace, Kevin always thinks it is time to leave, so he starts pulling at his parents and saying, "Home. Home." If the people are talking, shaking hands, hugging and moving around, the Mass must be over. This was our greatest concern—that Kevin would want to go home after the sign of peace and not be able to settle down for Communion.

With everyone hugging and blessing him after the sign of peace at his Communion Mass, Kevin was sure the Mass had ended and that it was time to leave. The preparations at home for the celebration after Mass let him know it was a special day, and all the attention he received before and during the Mass only added to his excitement and expectations of the brunch to follow. As far as Kevin was concerned, it was time to go home and celebrate.

Lisa, Randy and I tried to get him to walk toward Father Ron and up the altar steps. He kept pulling away, crying and repeating, "Home! Home!" The congregation strained forward as though they could walk up the steps for him. They held their breath as we attempted to quiet Kevin by reassuring him that we would go home "later."

Even after we stood in front of Father Ron, Kevin was struggling and his "Home! Home!" could be heard throughout the church. I knew Lisa and Randy were thinking that all the months of teaching him were in vain and Kevin would never receive the Eucharist.

Kevin needed to center himself in the midst of the attention, so I said in a loud and firm voice, "Pray!" Immediately, his hands came up the way we had taught him. He would not take the small piece of host from Father Ron, so I took it and raised it as I said to Kevin, "The Body of Christ." This was his signal to receive the Eucharist.

Quietly, he took the Body of Christ on his tongue and his "Amen!" resounded through the stillness that had come over the church. His smile was as beautiful as always and he knew he had done well. Everyone's sigh of relief was audible as his acclamation of faith broke through the silence. Even those who did not know Kevin had tears in their eyes.

Lisa cried and Randy was obviously moved. I gave thanks to Jesus as we walked down the steps quietly and went back to the pew. The Mass ended with everyone joyfully praising the Lord for what they had witnessed.

Now, Kevin can attend Mass and receive Communion with his parents, brothers and fellow parishioners. Although he became a member of the body of Christ at Baptism, he is now included with those who profess their faith with an Amen after receiving the Eucharist. Kevin might not know doctrine or understand ritual, but he recognizes the Body of Christ.

Amen!

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