By Barb Arland-Fye
Attending a long-awaited faith formation conference featuring Father Ron Rolheiser, I listened to a fascinating exchange about autism that may have taken the theologian, author and theology school president by surprise.
Responding to a question from his audience at the Aug. 5 conference in Hiawatha, Iowa, Fr. Rolheiser explained that faith is a gift offered to everybody. But in expanding on his answer, he noted that people with autism, for example, struggle with the concept of faith because of their need for the concrete.
A woman rose from the audience, identified herself as the mother of a 14-year-old boy with autism who does not like to attend Mass and does not understand the meaning of Eucharist.
“How do you teach faith to a 14-year-old with autism?” she asked Fr. Rolheiser.
He didn’t pretend to have an answer, but suggested that the mother explore the work of physicist Brian Swimme, who shows how God is at work in the world.
The autism question prompted a mini-discussion among the 600 or so people at the conference in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. They had come from parishes in the Archdiocese of Dubuque and the Dioceses of Davenport and Des Moines.
“Another resource is here in the room with us,” said Des Moines’ diocesan evangelization director Cheryl Fournier, signaling for Nancy Thompson to stand. Thompson, who lives in the Davenport Diocese, is director of programs and diocesan relations for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
Still another woman stood up, a teacher of high-functioning individuals with autism. She suggested watching the movie “Temple Grandin,” the biography of perhaps the best-known individual with autism on the planet.
As this brief dialogue continued, I thought about my autistic son’s understanding of faith. Colin, who is 27, loves Mass and all of its rituals. He understands that in the Eucharist he receives the body and blood of Jesus. He insists on receiving both species. God forbid if the chalice is empty before my son is able to receive from it.
But when I asked him about God, Colin said “he looks human.” God is “a kind-hearted person” who “lives in heaven, not on earth.” Colin expects to join God in heaven, “but it will be a while.” Perhaps my son has the faith of a child, but, more importantly, God is a part of his life. Everything in life, including his faith, is black and white for our older son, my husband Steve pointed out.
I had to leave Fr. Rolheiser’s talk an hour early so that my son Patrick and I could make it back to Davenport to pick up Colin for Saturday night Mass at Our Lady of the River Church in LeClaire. He has attended Mass there since age 4 and with few exceptions, won’t go anywhere else.
Perhaps I should have mentioned to Fr. Rolheiser’s audience that we have another resource for individuals with autism and other special needs — Special Faith Saturdays. This faith formation program of the Davenport Diocese meets monthly during the school year at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove. Colin has participated in this spiritually and socially enriching program, and even has the opportunity to do one of the readings at Mass on Special Faith Saturdays.
I’m heartened that the subject of autism came up in Fr. Rolheiser’s talk, coincidentally during Autism Awareness Month. It’s a topic that deserves further discussion as we explore the meaning of faith.