RCIA For Those With Special Needs

What do you do when you have a person who is unbaptized, over the age of 7, able to make decisions for himself /herself but has special needs?  The RCIA model is wholistic-addresses the whole person-and allows for numerous adaptations while focusing on formation and conversion within community. Here is a great article about a young man with autism and how the parish adapted the RCIA to meet his needs.

Paragraph 75 of The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults points the way when working with person with special needs.

75.1  The catechumenate is an extended period during which the candidates are given suitable pastoral formation and guidance, aimed at training them in the Christian life. In this way, the dispositions manifested at their acceptance into the catechumenate are brought to maturity.

Let’s break this open.

Extended Period –  How long does it take? The answer always remains the same—“As long as it needs to take!”  The extended period of the catechumenate allows for an emersion experience for the catechumen. As team leaders, we have to walk with each individual according to the movement of the Spirit in their life. Our walk with Kyle affirmed this and helped us grow as a catechetical team.  Paragraph 75 was incarnated in Kyle.

This special young man began his journey with us when he was 18 and at 25 he was baptized. “K” would come and sit in church with his parents, but only for a short while. Crowds and loud music were too much for him. Sometimes he would come to Mass on week nights enabling him to enter more deeply into the celebration of the Mass. Our pastor was wonderful as Kyle often gave verbal responses to the homily.  Far from being a distraction, he would often ask the questions many in the pew wished they could ask.

His mom joined the RCIA team in our hospitality ministry so Kyle knew all of the team. He would occasionally join us in the Adult RCIA sessions and, again, would ask the real questions, starting with “How do I know there is a God?”  He would offer insights such as “Evil is real. I see how people look at me.  They don’t even know me.  That’s evil”.   When his grandmother was in hospice care, we gathered around her bed and began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Kyle stood with his hand on his grandma’s forehead and began to recite the prayer. No one even knew he knew the prayer. His mom asked him where he learned it. His answer was, “From a TV show.  I put it on reruns so I can hear it”.

Kyle would come and go based on his health issues and interest.  His sponsors were wonderful people who really came to know him and the entire family.  His mom and dad were received into the full communion of the Catholic Church several years earlier, but did not push their special needs son to become a Catholic Christian.

In his seventh year with us, he began to sit in on the classes with the middle school youth. He really was their age mentally and emotionally.  There, something changed for him.  As he shared with these younger folks, he began to blossom as he could do “God talk”. Kyle had been watching cartoons on EWTN and videos on YouTube about the Catholic faith. His mom and sponsors were with him during the sessions but allowed him to do all the talking.  And talk he did.  He and the other kids began applying the scripture stories they were reading to real life. Kyle, on many levels, became the catechist for the group as he always had a unique perspective.

Suitable formation and guidance – For this, we looked to the parish and to parents.  We had wonderful sponsors and parents who worked together to support Kyle.   As a visual and oral learner, the physical church became a catechetical tool. Great conversations were shared around the Stations of the Cross and the San Damiano Cross hanging the sanctuary. Sacramental catechesis was done standing under the Ambry beside our immersion font and sitting in the Confessional.  As we stood at the Table, Kyle made the connection about the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Sacrifice of Jesus and the Sacrifice of the Mass all on his own.

Dispositions manifested – When Kyle celebrated the Rite of Acceptance he was amazing. His recent back surgery had left him in more pain. He knew this special Mass was happening. He had declined to participate in this Rite when it was offered to him and celebrated six previous times. When Kyle said he wanted to participate in the Mass, we invited him to come early, suggested that he not process in with the others, and offered to have a seat ready for him so he would not have to stand. He refused our offers of help and said he wanted to walk in with everyone else. Slowly he walked down the aisle, eyes straight ahead looking at the Cross. Physically, Kyle is an imposing figure, standing 6’3” even bent somewhat in pain. As his body was covered by the cross, he patiently stood and allowed his sponsor to touch him. Touching is not easy for him to accept. He joined us in the Breaking of the Word and ensuing reflection back on the Rite. Everyone knew he was in pain. One of the younger children asked him why he did not sit down. He looked up and said, “This was important. I really wanted God and everyone to know that I am here and that I am ready. I kind of wish they had blessed my back too.”

Maturity – When Kyle began sharing with the youth, it became apparent that something had taken a deep hold on him.   He could name experiences of peace and an awareness of God that was palpable. Kyle’s emphasis on compassion towards others became his signature commentary.  Kyle said that he was put on earth to help others, just like Jesus. His Baptism would give him super human power to help take care of other people.

The Easter Vigil was amazing that year.  We were not sure if Kyle could handle all the stimulation of the evening. We made arrangements with the Pastor to bring Kyle into full communion at a smaller quieter Mass if need be.

After the Gloria, we did have to step outside for a moment, as the change in the environment (the bringing up of the lights and the ringing of the bells) startled him.  When we came back in, we sat quietly by the font listening to the readings, awaiting the arrival of the other catechumens. Kyle was baptized first. We have an immersion pool which he was unable to enter. Father filled a large pitcher of water, instructed Kyle to bend a bit over the pool, and three times seriously wet his head and neck! After the third time, Kyle stood straight, dripping, smiling and clapping for himself. He was so happy. As the other Catechumens stepped out of the pool, Kyle was right there at the foot of the steps greeting the newest Christians.  He held his baptismal candle with deep reverence, grinning from ear to ear as he was anointed with oil and his Confirmation name was spoken.  When receiving Eucharist, he slowly bowed and gently took Jesus into his mouth.

Today Kyle is part of the RCIA hospitality team with his mother.  He arrives early to help setup and then goes off to Mass. He often sits in the back of church near the font—his favorite place. The people of the parish wave and come to shake his hand call him by name. If we had rushed through an abbreviated formation, we do not believe Kyle would have fully matured. We allowed him to move at his own pace. When he finally asked to be baptized, we then moved forward with formation on his level.  The entire parish became pivotal as they grew to know him and his needs. Today he is fully one of us. Amen!


This article was written by  Kathy Kelly-Huey from St. Mary Magdalene