Father Thomas Plastow S.J. Answers Liturgy Questions
This month’s question comes from a lady who is writing on behalf of a friend.
Someone I know has a son with severe mental disabilities. Although he is now old enough to make his First Communion, their parish priest says that he cannot as he does not yet have sufficient understanding to grasp the meaning of the sacrament. Unfortunately, he is most unlikely ever to have that ability. Is the parish priest allowed to make this decision?
Thank you for this question. Such situations require gentle pastoral care. The Church’s law says that a child’s parents or guardians and the local parish priest are obliged to see that children with the use of reason are suitably prepared for Holy Communion as soon as possible. At the same time, however, the parish priest must ensure that children who do not have the use of reason, or whom he judges to be insufficiently disposed, do not come to Holy Communion. (cf.: Code of Canon Law # 914)
I expect your friend’s priest thinks her boy is a slow learner and he is hoping that as he develops, so his ability to understand the catechism lessons will improve. Sadly, this is not possible for every handicapped child.
What is the church’s teaching with regard to people with severe mental disabilities? Do we never include them in Communion? How do we handle this? Is there a clear teaching?
The Code of Canon Law makes no specific provisions for those whose reasoning is impaired due to developmental disabilities. Such matters are left to the local Bishops’ Conference or even to the diocesan bishop. In places without a local policy, the parents or guardians, together with the parish priest must ensure that children with special needs are given a specially prepared series of classes before First Holy Communion, adapting the content and methodology according to the children’s ability. (cf.: Canon 777/4)
In the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, Special Religious Development, or SPRED (=Sp.Re.D.) is the officially recognised programme for children with special needs. SPRED originated in the Archdiocese of Chicago and then spread around the globe. Sister Teresa Marie set things up in Johannesburg twenty years ago and there are now several lively groups operating in both suburban and township parishes. A quick phone call to the chancery will put you in touch with your closest SPRED group. There your friend will meet other parents and caregivers who understand her concerns and she will be invited to bring her son to the meetings, including their specially designed liturgies and catechism sessions.
Catholic teaching always stresses the inherent worth of each and every human being. People with mental disabilities are no less worthy. They are also children of God and deserve to be nurtured and accepted as part of our Christian community. These provisions shine through SPRED’s Vision and Mission Statements, both of which I quote here:
SPRED VISION STATEMENT: To integrate socially, psychologically and spiritually in parish worship children, adolescents and adults with developmental disabilities, recognizing their individual value, attributes and contributions to society and the church.
SPRED MISSION STATEMENT: We believe in a loving God who embraces all, and gives us life to share. We acknowledge our need for nurturing our faith. We accept the challenge of aiding persons who have an intellectual disability to belong fully to their church. Together we work with individuals, families, care-providers, staff and parishes in providing religious services for a better quality of life for children, adolescents and adults who have an intellectual or related developmental disability. We learn about each other’s gifts and talents through commencing and supporting small basic faith groups. Every person, “created in the image and likeness of God”, has a yearning to become more deeply connected with God and others. People with an intellectual disability are no different.