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Making Churches Open to Families with Special Needs

Posted : Mar-14-2022

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Cathy Pettigrew is a mother, wife, teacher, founder of an educational business, motivational speaker, counsellor and psychometrist. She is a parishioner of the Archdiocese of Toronto and will be presenting at the upcoming archdiocesan conference, “Parish Ministry with People with Disabilities.” Below, Cathy shares some perspectives on attending church when your child has a disability.

1. For our readers who haven’t met you yet, can you describe some of your family’s special needs when you attend Mass?

One of my daughters has both type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, and my younger son also has celiac disease. Both of these conditions affect how they participate in Mass. With type 1 diabetes, fluctuations in blood sugar levels can happen for many reasons, both within and out of my daughter’s control, and when either of those happen, she has to treat her blood sugars accordingly. This could mean eating something containing sugar to raise low blood sugar levels, or drinking water and/or administering extra insulin to lower high blood sugars, all during the Mass. Of course, she does this as discreetly as possible, but she is always conscious that people may wonder at her actions.

At Communion, because celiac disease restricts a person from eating anything that contains or has been in contact with gluten, the children cannot consume the same type of host as the rest of the congregation; we purchase their specific unconsecrated Communion hosts at a religious supply store and bring them to Mass every Sunday in a pyx. They take their Communion separately, after the Mass is over; the Eucharistic minister must take care to wash their hands before administering my children’s Communion. Their hosts are consecrated in a closed pyx, to keep them safely apart so as to avoid cross-contamination with regular, gluten-containing hosts. We must ensure that we arrive early to Mass, to deliver the pyx containing the unconsecrated hosts to a deacon or priest to place on the altar before the Mass begins. If we are late to Mass, the children cannot take Communion.


2. How have parish communities generally responded to your family’s needs?

My home parish of St. Benedict’s has been very open to learning and understanding the various needs that my children have. When the children were diagnosed with celiac disease, I made an appointment to speak with our pastor and our lay pastoral assistant about the ramifications it would have on their participation in the Mass. Through open communication and a willingness to see what options were available, and to work together to find ways to safely keep the children able to continue to participate in the Mass, we arrived at a protocol that has worked well.
Our youth minister and her team have also been very open to learning how to support the children and keep them safe and included in youth activities, which they have very much appreciated as inclusion in group activities is something they can no longer count upon.


3. Why should parishes make themselves accessible to families with disabilities?

I could say that we should “love our neighbour,” but this is not really about loving our neighbour because the disabled community is not a “neighbour” of the church – they are already a part of the church, and as such, have a right to be able to fully participate in the life of the church, whether that is the Mass or accessing parts of the building so as to join in community activities.

However, until churches are fully accessible, members of the parish who live with disabilities may not be able to participate fully in the life of the church. Accessibility can mean a great number of things – this goes way beyond the ramp, as there are both visible and invisible disabilities. The pursuit of accessibility is not necessarily an easy one, nor is it always quick to achieve, but it is something we must commit to, now that we, as a society, and as Christian people, have the information and resources to start down that path.


4. Some of your fellow parishioners may struggle to understand the accommodations that people with disabilities need. How should we reach out to those parishioners?

In my experience, outreach to people who are in this place of struggling to understand the reasons for necessary accommodations should be based on the pillars of openness, communication, education and patience. When those of us who live with disabilities, either personally or in our families, remain open to entering into communication with others, to educate and inform them about things of which they may not have any knowledge or understanding, we open a channel and extend an invitation for them to enter into our lives, to share it with us and support us.

Patience comes in when the invitation is not enough, and persistence is necessary to get through to them. In some cases, it is necessary to enlist further support from parish administration and volunteers – the pastor, priests, deacons, lay pastoral assistants, ministers of hospitality and others who have some reach and/or authority in the parish community. The hope is that all parishioners can eventually come to a place of loving support for one another.


5. What advice would you give to parishes that are trying to be welcoming to all?

It is important to realize that the practice of making a parish accessible to the needs of its congregation is one that requires commitment from many key players, a willingness to work with the parishioners who live with the disabilities for which it is trying to build in accommodations, and the knowledge that the conversations will be ongoing, as the needs of the congregation change, as technologies develop, and as people come and go from the parish community.

Having said this, welcome begins with a willingness to try. Finances, space, staffing and a whole host of other things can put obstacles in the way of achieving full accessibility. However, with a willingness to try and openness to finding different solutions, great things can be accomplished and many challenges can be overcome. Solutions do not have to be complex, nor do they have to be perfect. Often there is a simpler answer that is the best that can be done at the moment. As long as the parish continues to strive to do the best they can as time progresses, as long as the parish and parishioners with disabilities work together to find solutions, and as long as we are guided by love, I believe much can be accomplished for the benefit of many.

If you are a parish volunteer who interacts with the public in your role, or if you are a parish staff member or clergy member, you can attend the “Parish Ministry with People with Disabilities” conference, which is organized by the Office of Formation for Discipleship. It is a great opportunity to learn how to make your parish more accessibility to all God’s people.