‘A really joyful journey’: Preparing people with intellectual disabilities to receive the sacraments

As book titles go, the “Directory for Catechesis” is hardly the catchiest. But this volume could potentially transform the lives of thousands of people.

That is the conviction of Gail Williams, center manager at Caritas St. Joseph in Hendon, north London. When the updated directory — formerly known as the General Directory for Catechesis — was released in June, she was struck by what it said about people with disabilities.  

“People with disabilities are called to the fullness of sacramental life, even in the presence of serious disturbances,” the directory said. “The sacraments are gifts of God and the liturgy, even before being rationally understood, asks to be lived: therefore, no one can deny the sacraments to people with disabilities.”

“It means so much for it actually to be printed in there,” Williams told CNA, “because the General Directory for Catechesis is the go-to for anybody that’s not really doing this work. And they’ll often say: ‘Well, is it in the General Directory for Catechesis?’” 

“To be able to say ‘Yes, it is’ is just amazing, because then you have real proof and back-up that actually the Catholic Church does want to embrace everyone and does want to encompass those that are usually ignored.” 

For the past 40 years, Caritas St. Joseph has supported people with intellectual disabilities, as well as their families and friends, in the English Diocese of Westminster. Formerly known as St. Joseph’s Pastoral Centre, Caritas St. Joseph wants to share its expertise far beyond the borders of Westminster diocese, which includes all of London north of the River Thames and some outlying areas.

Williams believes that some parishes are scared of catechizing those with learning disabilities. She is on a mission to persuade them that it can, in fact, be “a really joyful journey.” 

Her interest in catechesis began when her oldest son, who is severely dyslexic, started his First Communion course at the age of seven. 

“Nobody understood how he functioned. In those days, it was all ‘sit down and read from the book,’ and it was so difficult for him,” she recalled.

She realized that her son’s faith grew by listening to the words said at Mass, as well as through the sounds and smells at the church they attended. 

In 2006, Williams attended a course called “Symbols of Faith” at St. Joseph’s. When she returned to her parish with a deeper knowledge of how to teach the faith to people with learning disabilities, she made a disturbing discovery. 

She found that there were families that didn’t bring their children to church because they couldn’t cope with crowds or remain still during the quieter parts of Mass.  

“To go back and find that part of my parish family was missing because of all these reasons was a real eye-opener for me,” she remembered. “That’s when I really felt quite strongly that everybody should be included.”

Williams continued: “When you’re a parent of a child or an adult with a learning disability, and you are on the phone constantly to doctors, fighting for them at school, the last thing you really need to do is to feel shut off from your faith.”

The latest catechetical directory is the third since the Second Vatican Council. The first, the General Catechetical Directory, was published in 1971. The second, the General Directory for Catechesis, was issued in 1997. The latest version updates catechetical methods for the digital age and is likely to have a profound impact on the teaching of the Catholic faith around the world. 

When Williams begins catechizing a child, she takes them into an empty church and helps them to appreciate all the sensory elements: the colors, sounds and smells. She may lead them to the altar and explain why it is much more than an ordinary table.  

“It’s not about long, convoluted words. It’s about showing and supporting them in making their own discoveries,” she said.

Williams urges parents of disabled children to raise the directory’s new recommendations with their pastors. If their parish doesn’t know where to begin, she advises them to contact Caritas St. Joseph or similar organizations where they live. 

“We can come out and we can train people, and we can share our knowledge, expertise and resources. But once you are trained, don’t be afraid to be the voice for those people who are left on the fringes of your parish,” she said.

Williams noted that, while her work is deeply rewarding, it can be emotionally draining. At one point, she was visiting families after finishing her day job. 

“Sometimes you would spend one minute with the child because he had had enough at school that day and just wasn’t interested,” she said. “But then you would spend half an hour with the mum, because she hadn’t seen anyone all week or he had had a difficult day at school and she needed to talk to someone.”

“At those times you think ‘Well, I can’t catechize today.’ But actually you’re supporting the whole family. And it’s so important that even if it seems impossible, actually it isn’t. Kindness, patience and time is the best gift.”

There are also heart-lifting breakthroughs. Williams talks about discussing transubstantiation with a child who responded by making two sign-language gestures, one meaning “change” and the other signifying “creation.” 

“So then you know that actually she’s understanding that that’s the Consecration, that the bread and the wine is changing and creating the Body and Blood. You get moments like that, that absolutely clarify what you are doing,” she said.

Above all, Williams wants parents to know that, thanks to the latest directory, a new path is open to them.

“It doesn’t matter where you are or who you are. God can always be present in your life,” Williams said.

“Quite a lot of time we get the question ‘Do they really know?’ And yes, they really do. Sometimes you have to work with someone for four years, sometimes for a year. Sometimes you can support them straightaway on the Communion program.”

“Just don’t be afraid,” she concluded. “It is possible for everyone.”

CNA, catholicnewsagency.com