For Understanding and Conversion: Serving Those with Cognitive Disabilities
In this column, we have been discussing catechesis for persons with disabilities; and up to this point, we have focused particularly on those persons with physical disabilities. While the next article in this series will consider autism spectrum disorders, we turn here to learning disabilities and developmental disabilities.
Here is a point that we must emphasize: even if some people have disabilities that can impair their ability to understand the teachings of the Catholic Church, they can still have a profound love for Jesus Christ. In fact, the National Directory for Catechesis says, “Children with cognitive disabilities often have an unusual intuitive understanding of the sacred.”[i]
The National Directory also states, “Catechetical goals and objectives should be set for special students included in parish catechesis. They should not be segregated for specialized catechesis unless the disabilities make it impossible for them to participate in the basic catechetical program.”[ii]
Sometimes we can feel uncomfortable around persons with severe cognitive disabilities; one reason for discomfort may be the lack of personal boundaries on the part of many individuals with these disabilities. Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier can help us to overcome our discomfort. Vanier, the son of Canada’s Governor General, was the founder of L’Arche,[iii] an international ministry focused on living with, praying with, and loving with persons with intellectual disabilities. The Catholic television show called Man Alive (1972) featured an interview with Jean Vanier and Mother Teresa together. Neither one had achieved the international acclaim and admiration that they would later receive; nevertheless, they both were adamant that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ implies that you must serve him in the distressing disguise of the poor, as Mother Teresa always taught. If we wish to overcome our fear, this personal relationship of service must become one of perfect love because as St. John says, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:8).
Throughout these articles, we have stressed that our attitude must be that of Christ. Unless we love, we can achieve no success in anything we undertake, and certainly not with people who have such disabilities. Vanier knew this well:
At the heart of Vanier’s theology is the human desire to belong. Human beings are made for deep relationships; they are made for community. As he puts it: “The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens…” Vanier’s theology of community and belonging requires that those whom we have chosen to name "disabled," should have a place of belonging within the community of the friends of Jesus. If they are not missed they do not belong; if they do not belong there is no community.[iv]