By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Individuals with intellectual disabilities relish their ministries during Special Faith Saturday Mass at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove. Bob, Gerard, LeAnn and Tim take up the collection and the gifts and distribute bulletins at the end of Mass. Sometimes they read prayer intentions. Colin gets to serve as a lector, proclaiming the first reading. Whatever their role, Special Faith Saturday participants remind the congregation that all people have gifts to share in service during the Mass.
“Every individual has a role in the Mass, whether it’s passing out the bulletin or bringing up the offertory gifts, taking up the collection, reading or greeting the people. There are always things every one of them can do,” observed Msgr. Drake Shafer, St. Ann’s pastor.
“I think that participation in the liturgy is as important a part of Special Faith Saturday as the education, the activities and socialization.”
On Special Faith Saturdays, “you can just feel the grace acting,” continued Msgr. Shafer, who is guardian for his brother Gerard, an adult with an intellectual disability and Special Faith Saturday participant. The pastor senses the worshipping community’s response to Special Faith members and their response to the community.
For some parishioners, “that’s why they come to this Mass. They know that the Special Faith Saturday people are going to be participating,” adds Nancy Shannon, a retired special education teacher who directs the Special Faith Saturday program.
Parishioners overlook the occasional act of frustration or miscue by a participant. “That’s how accepting the members of St. Ann’s Parish are — regardless of what happens during the Mass,” Shannon says. “These individuals with special needs are willing to get up there, to do and to participate … I’ve just had so many people say it’s wonderful.”
Now in its fourth year, the program came to fruition through convergence of several things: a Davenport parish’s exploration of special education faith formation for children; Msgr. Shafer’s concern that his brother was being “fed” at a “church (non-Catholic) of the true doughnut;” and the retirement of Shannon, a St. Ann’s parishioner.
Since many parishes include children with special needs in their faith formation programs, Mary Wieser, diocesan director of faith formation, began addressing the needs of adults with special needs. Wieser is also a member of St. Ann’s. She got together with Msgr. Shafer and Nancy Shannon to brainstorm. Their efforts led to creation of Special Faith Saturday, which meets one Saturday a month from September through May.
The next class is Jan. 31 and begins at 2 p.m. with Mass at 4 p.m. Individuals ages 16 to senior citizens from any parish are invited to attend. Shannon’s assistants are Mary and Arnie Wieser and Jane Bergendahl. Parents and guardians assist as needed.
Wieser also appreciates the support of Knights of Columbus councils at St. Ann’s and at Holy Family Parish in Davenport, particularly for funding materials and pizza parties. With funding from Holy Family KCs, Wieser bought adaptive kits for reconciliation, Eucharist and confirmation.
She saw a great need to prepare the adults with special needs to receive the sacraments. “Because of earlier attitudes in society, some of them had not received the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of confirmation,” Wieser said. That first year, she asked Bishop Martin Amos to confirm the adults. “He responded wonderfully and said he would be willing to do special needs confirmation for adults on Pentecost Sunday.”
This year, participants are learning about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. During December’s meeting, they signed 420 Christmas cards for individuals in nursing homes and the hospital.
“Special needs people are real believers. They open their hearts to the presence of God and goodness,” Msgr. Shafer says. “There’s never been a year that I’ve done (Special Faith Saturday Mass) that somebody in the congregation hasn’t come up and said to me, ‘They made me believe again in the power of goodness and love.’”