ROME – Martin Benton is in his late 60s. He’s a husband, father of two and a proud grandfather of one. He’s a lawyer, and his wife describes him as a “fun, intelligent individual.”
Martin has cerebral palsy, a blanket term to describe loss or impairment of motor function, actually caused by brain damage that occurs while a child’s brain is still developing. Though it varies from one person to another, it affects body movement, muscle control, muscle coordination, balance, and speech.
He’s currently in Rome with his wife Janice Benton, who describes him as the “best PR we have.” The “we” refers to the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, of which she’s the executive director.
They’re in the Eternal City because the institution has partnered with the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, the UK-based Kairos Forum and the Italian Bishops’ Conference to organize an international conference titled “Catechesis and Persons with Disabilities: A Necessary Engagement in the Daily Pastoral Life of the Church.”
The Oct. 20-22 event will take place at Rome’s Pontifical Urbanianum University. On Saturday, the group will go on pilgrimage to the Vatican, where they’ll have an audience with Pope Francis.
Baroness Sheila Hollins, member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and Australian Bishop Peter A. Comensoli are among the speakers who will present methods for the catechesis of disabled people. The prayer services will be organized by people with disabilities, including Down syndrome and autism.
According to Monsignor Geno Sylva, an official at the Council for New Evangelization, the catechetical conference is “one of the real, concrete fruits of the Jubilee of Mercy,” an Extraordinary Holy Year that was celebrated from Dec. 2015 to Nov. 2016.
“When we had the Jubilee for Disabled People, it provided us with the opportunity to really listen and learn from people who came as to what their needs are in the Church universal,” Sylva told Crux on Thursday.
And one of those pressing needs, he said, was in the area of catechesis: “How is it that we can provide people with disabilities the catechetical formation that they can receive it, that it can transform their lives and deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ?”
So his boss, Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, called for this event, which is being held one week after the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Sylva said that putting the conference together has been a “beautiful experience” of the universal Church working with the local churches. People from around the world helped put the event together, because “we’re not the experts in this field.”
Those collaborating helped by suggesting not only speakers, but also the themes that needed exploring, and by giving much-needed attention to details.
There are some 420 people who have registered to participate, many of them with either intellectual or physical disabilities. There will be simultaneous translation available in English, Italian, French and Spanish, and also seven different sign languages, including British English and American English.
Among those helping were the Bensons, and also IHM Sister Kathleen Schipani, director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
They welcomed the conference enthusiastically, in the hopes that it’ll help them breach the gap between those parishes that have an open arms attitude towards people with disabilities, and those that don’t. Sometimes, Schipani told Crux, people feel that they need to work really hard to make themselves or their children part of regular parish life.
According to the religious sister, some parishes will say “we’ll support you, but you know your child more than we do,” which can be a “bit of a cop-out.” The National Directory of Catechesis, she notes, states that all families should have support, even though they’re the first catechists.
Furthermore, the recently updated guidelines from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop on the reception for people with disabilities, indicate that sometimes there’s a lack of awareness, “meaning parishes don’t even know that there are members with disabilities.”
Other parishes, she said, don’t work on integrating them because of fear. Fear of doing something they’ve never done before, because there’s anxiety about differences and the perceived challenges of accommodating the programs to address special needs.
Yet with years of experience in the field to back them up, both women agree that the challenges are not financial ones, and that no huge programs are needed. “It’s about finding the time to talk to them and their families one-on-one, learning about their needs,” Benson told Crux.
In addition, pastors and parish staff sometimes respond to people with disabilities and their families by saying that they, particularly those with intellectual disabilities, “don’t need formation.”
“That idea of ‘they’re angels’ which is a disservice to the person, because just like us, they’re human beings, and just like us, they’re called to encounter Christ through the sacraments, to be fully part of the body of Christ, and are also called to holiness,” she said.
For this reason, throughout the three-day event, many of the speakers are people with different ranges of disabilities who will speak about their encounter with Christ and their deep faith, and also the ways in which they themselves are agents of evangelization.
Among these, there will be members of the Little Sisters Disciples of the Lamb, a Contemplative Community of Religious Sisters from France, many of whom have Down syndrome.
Just as they don’t approve of the “they’re angels hence don’t need formation” attitude, both Bensons flinch at the idea that people with disabilities have something “special” to give. Confronting this idea, Janice said, is “difficult” for them.
“Others would respond differently, perhaps talk about the value of suffering, but we say, ‘people are people, take them for who they are,’” she said. “For us, disabilities are a normal part of life. You should expect it, plan for it, and not make it exceptional.”
Schipani agrees, but she adds that people with disabilities can be a reminder of “the necessity of our interdependence with one another.” Oftentimes, she said, people overlook their need of encountering others.
“In terms of the interaction between an individual with disability and one who doesn’t, I can know within ten seconds if the person I’m talking to is going to engage me or not,” Martin said.
Building up on this, his wife said that some people “pat him,” thinking “cutesy,” which leads them to know within those 10 seconds that they’re not going to be friends: “They don’t see Martin as a fun, intelligent individual. He’s a father of two, we just welcomed our first grandson.”
“People sometimes make assumptions that he doesn’t get it. It’s them who don’t get it,” she said.
Part of the problem, according to Benton, is the tendency of lumping people together, thinking about groups and not individuals. Not everyone with an intellectual disability, she said, is interested in arts and crafts: “Some want to talk about hockey or baseball!”
Benson believes that at a parish level, a lot depends on the pastor or the faith formation director, because they’re the ones who have to help set the tone for the parish, make it one where everyone recognizes that they belong to it. Belonging, she said, is an evolution from inclusion: “When you include people, you still have the power to exclude people.”
“But when you recognize that by virtue of our baptism, people with disabilities belong, you approach ministry differently,” she said. “You realize that everybody is part of it, but they might just need a little bit extra. If you see it as relationships and meeting people one on one, growing them in, including them into the life of the parish, it’s very much doable.”
According to Schipani, a key element is for catechetical leaders to build a parish education program that meets the needs of all the children, instead of a program for “special children.” She remembers that, decades ago, when she was a young religious, she was working at a large parish in her diocese. One day, a mother holding the hand of her daughter with Down syndrome came in, and said: “They told me to come here because they have nothing for my child in my parish.”
“You need to have it as one of the goals of your parish, to be one that meets the needs of your people,” Schipani said. “People with disabilities can be altar servers, Eucharistic ministers, lectors, consecrated religious, ordained ministers.”