Diocese seeks input on special needs ministry

Assisting with registration for adult faith formation at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove are Bob Ragona, left, and Gerard Shafer who are part of the parish’s volunteer ministry team. The Davenport Diocese is exploring how to offer a more complete formation program that includes people with various special needs.

By Barb Arland-Fye

Children and adults with special needs are the focus of a diocesan effort to determine how best to serve their faith formation needs.

“We’re trying to get a special needs committee organized that is representative of children and adults with special needs and to identify what their needs and concerns are in terms of faith formation,” said Mary Wieser, the Davenport Diocese’s Faith Formation director. If you’d like to be a part of the committee, call her at (563) 324-1911 or e-mail her at wieser@

davenportdiocese.org.

Wieser also hopes to hear from parents and guardians of adults with cognitive disabilities who’ve received the sacraments of baptism and Communion, but have not been confirmed and desire to receive this sacrament to complete the sacraments of initiation. A confirmation class could be established, if there’s interest, and at its conclusion Bishop Martin Amos would confirm the candidates.

“As a society and as a Church we try to find ways to help people participate more fully in the life of the Church,” Bishop Amos said. “Churches are built handicapped accessible nowadays. Sometimes liturgies are signed for the deaf. At times sacramental preparation needs to be presented in different ways.”

“I’m a firm believer that we all have special needs and that we’re all gifted and talented,” Wieser said. “If I’m an older person and my knees are giving out, I can’t get up into the balcony to sing in the choir, so the parish should accommodate me. And we have people who are mentally and physically challenged and we need to be very aware of their needs and concerns.”

It isn’t realistic to think that every need will be met, but “in most cases we can accommodate if we’re caring and have people in the parish who are willing to volunteer their time and talent,” she added. “Parishes need to be open and see how they can accommodate people with special needs.”

St. Ann Parish in Long Grove may set the example. Plans are underway to offer faith formation classes for adults with cognitive disabilities and open it up to other parishes. The classes would have both a faith formational or sharing aspect as well as an opportunity for social interaction and celebration.

“We have a number of special needs people in the parish. This is something I felt has been sorely needed for a long, long time,” said Msgr. Drake Shafer, pastor of St. Ann’s and guardian of his brother Gerard who has Down syndrome. “We’re recruiting teachers and want to do a needs assessment with the folks themselves to see what they’re looking for.”

Msgr. Shafer is especially concerned about the number of adults with cognitive disabilities who haven’t been confirmed. Parents and families made sure their children were baptized and received first Communion. But he suspects they didn’t pursue confirmation because of an implied, incorrect assumption that the sacrament represents a movement to adulthood and that people with cognitive disabilities would never be adults.

But he also is mindful that people with special needs are as diverse as their typical peers. St. Ann’s is wrestling with how to be as inclusive as possible in serving people with special needs. “That’s where we need to push the envelope. We have a lot of creativity. We have special needs teachers in our parish who can help us with that formation. We’ll have to rely on the resident experts to help us do a good job of catechizing,” Msgr. Shafer said.

“While not every parish has the ability in terms of resources, especially professional teachers, nearby parishes could collaborate to offer programs. Different parishes could respond to different needs groups. I think of the work that the deaf community and Msgr. James Parizek have done for many years. Together in regions (deaneries or regional clusters) we could accomplish great things.”

“We need to create some new paradigms. But we can’t do it without the parents and caregivers giving us their insight on what they think will work best for their adult children,” Wieser said.

She’s more energized after attending a meeting last month at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport where parents and other parishioners gathered to discuss accommodating the faith formation needs of individuals in their parish with special needs. They listened to a presentation by two women from the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., about a longtime special needs ministry called Special Persons Encounter Christ. The meeting, and the parishioners’ desire to reach out, “lit a fire under me,” Wieser said.

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