A Reflection on Being a Shepherd’s Flock Catechist
By Luci Cedrone
“We do not need to include those with disabilities in the liturgy.” A few years ago, the keynote address at a conference on faith and disability started with this provocative idea. The speaker went on to say that Christ has already included everyone at His table. As a community, our calling is to recognize the obstacles standing in the way and to remove them.
The Shepherd’s Flock community has a long, vibrant history of gathering people with autism or cognitive disabilities and their families. Our program works to provide religious education,
sacramental preparation and fellowship through weekly RE classes and a monthly Mass &
potluck. As a co-catechist, I cherish the community of these students and families. The decision not to hold classes or Masses this past year was both necessary and painful, particularly since virtual classes could not meet our students’ needs. Each missed week reminded me that I find Christ in this community more deeply than any other; without them, I feel adrift. I long to gather with them again and continue the work of realizing the Gospel vision of full inclusion.
At Christ’s table, no one is the greatest and no one is the least, all are welcome and we are
called to accompany one another in the journey of faith. Still, the world in which we live, especially in the nation’s capital, is founded on the exact opposite belief — that influence and the ability to create value matters most. Rather than accompanying others, our society tells us to lead, follow or get out of the way. In that reality, many are marginalized and relegated to lesser status.
Families of neurodiverse children and those with physical or cognitive disabilities receive
a persistent, exhausting message that their children take up too much attention or are too inconvenient to include. In church, families who worry their child will move too much, speak out or draw too much notice have often decided to avoid services rather than draw uncomfortable attention. Surely, if each of us waited until we were ready to receive the gifts of the Mass, our seats would remain empty. Yet, there is hope. During the last year and a half of pandemic life, many have questioned the notion that our accomplishments, busy-ness, and value are interconnected. With “normal” no longer an option, we re-evaluated what matters.
As we re-emerge, our post-pandemic parish life provides a beautiful opportunity to reach out to young people with disabilities and neurodiversity and make a bold commitment to inclusion. Being away reminded us all of the value of gathering, of touch, and belonging. Reconnecting with loved ones gives us joy and a feeling of wholeness. When one of us is missing, we feel a deep sense of loss. Let’s work now to remove the obstacles that keep some of us from His table. Let’s hold space for each person as they are, open ourselves to the work of the Spirit, and promise that in our new normal, no one feels unwelcome or overlooked. As Pope Francis as said, let’s “speak no longer about 'them,' but rather about 'us.'"
The first steps are simple: ask and be open. The needs of these families aren’t easy to guess,
especially after the stresses and isolation of the pandemic. Asking makes a human connection, invites the Holy Spirit to work through our relationships, and allows us to identify and remove obstacles we may not have recognized in the past.
Above all, join the community! Pope Francis has said that “the active participation of people with disabilities in the work of catechesis can greatly enrich the life of the whole parish.” I can attest that by their lives of love and faith, the Shepherd’s Flock community has refocused and deepened my own faith life. I invite you to share in the blessings of this ministry. We are always open to new students of all ages and, of course, new catechists! No special background is necessary to volunteer, just an openness to the love of God in our community.