June 21, 2024

A day-care center was part of the Special Needs Ministry Care-giver Retreat. While parents attended the retreat, the children received a visit from Bishop DeGrood.

By Laurie Stiegelmeier

It can be safely said that most readers of The Bishop’s Bulletin have not had firsthand experience of leprosy, extreme poverty, homelessness, or life in a “new world” or among pagans whose language and culture are totally unfamiliar. But heaven is populated with people who, without firsthand experience, accepted the call to be missionary disciples, to walk with those whose lives were different from their own and lead them to heaven as well.

Missionaries desire to share God’s love and gather all people into his Church. We are all called to be missionaries, but where is our mission field? It may be in our own family, parish or diocese.

Without experiencing disability in her person, Maggie Price accepted a call to missionary discipleship to those with special needs. In 2014, she was contacted by the diocesan Special Needs Ministry, formerly known as REACH (Religious Education for All Children), because there was a need for an adaptive Confirmation class. Her ability to educate, to teach the faith and to serve those with special needs all aligned in God’s great plan.

“Our main focus is to emphasize the beauty those with special needs bring to the Church and enable and empower parishes—from priests down to volunteers, and the family who sits in the pew behind them—to embrace them, welcome them and love them right where they are,” Maggie, special education consultant for the ministry, said.

Andy, Chloe (7), Michael (2), Zelie (4) and Maggie (expecting baby) Price

Experience has taught her that the best way to be successful in helping those with special needs is to heed Jesus’ words, “Do not be afraid.” “So often we fear people who are different from us, and that inhibits us from reaching out and opening our hearts,” Maggie said, adding that while fear of new territory, of not being capable enough and of failure might be legitimate, they are roadblocks to love and service.

“The truth is you might not have all the answers, solutions or time, but God does, and if he is calling you to it, he will provide,” she said. “Have an open heart, listen, reach out. Be welcoming and warm, don’t assume anything and ask a lot of questions.”

In John 9:2-3 we read, “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”’ Maggie says we must realize that the limits some individuals have might be the exact gift God can use to bring about his glory in our parishes and communities.

“I have been so amazed by the amount I have gained and learned from working with special needs individuals within the church realm. If I could only have a sliver of the faith that they have attained,” Maggie said, adding that she has been blown away by the childlike faith and inspired by the deep trust and undoubting belief of her students.

“You know, this is supposed to be a way God allows me to minister to those with special needs, but I can assure you, I am the one being ministered to,” she said. “Through their witness and example, I am taught to embrace the cross with joy. That’s an example we all need and one that is right within all our parishes if we take the time to reach out.”

Maggie affirmed that the beauty of the Catholic faith is that it is for everyone, regardless of ability. When we are baptized, when we receive any sacrament, we are given grace that isn’t limited by our abilities or skill level. That grace allows us to have hearts open to the founder and teacher of our faith—Jesus Christ.

“Luckily for us, Jesus’ love has no limits, and neither does what he can teach us or how he can move in our lives,” Maggie said. “That’s what is so cool about Christ! He taught the lepers, he cured the blind, he loved on the mute and lame. Jesus gives us his example of reaching out to those with special needs over and over in Scripture. This isn’t a coincidence; this is because they are a vital part of the story of Christ and our faith.”

The “Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities” states: “… realizing the unique gifts disabled individuals have to offer the Church, we wish to address the need for their fuller integration into the Christian community and their fuller participation in its life.” The bishops write that when members of the Church respond as Jesus did to the cries of the blind, lame, ill, deaf and poor, we will discover the kingdom of God in our midst. They declare that just as Jesus sought the company of people, who, for varying reasons, lived on the fringe of society, the Church finds its true identity by integrating itself with the same. And, because disabled individuals, perhaps more than most of us, live in the shadow of the cross, the virtues forged by their experience should inspire all Christians.

Still, many people underestimate the ability of those with special needs to grasp the Catholic faith and participate in its life. Maggie’s best advice is to not make discipling them harder than it must be. She believes our faith is so beautiful that it can be taught and absorbed in various ways. Many resources are available, among them she recommends the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program.

“It takes a little creativity, an open heart, and surrender to Christ so that he can work through you and them to make the Church fuller,” Maggie said. “I have students who read at Mass, take up gifts, volunteer to help clean the church, and sing. They have completed saint reports, attended retreats, received the sacraments and so much more. So much can be done, and involvement can happen if we are open.” She has one word for the gifts her students bring: “Amazing!”

“Special Saints for Special People,” a book study Maggie used in the young adult small group, was very moving. It made clear the mistake we often make of thinking those with special needs are on the receiving end of mercy, when, more often than not, they are instruments of God’s mercy to others.

A day-care center was part of the Special Needs Ministry Care-giver Retreat. While parents attended the retreat, the children received a visit from Bishop DeGrood.

“That is something to contemplate,” she said. “We often think of saints as perfect and maybe even having divine intelligence, but this book was a great reminder that holiness is surrendering to God’s will, and those with special needs—along with all of us—have been created to do just that.

“Jesus used those with special needs to reveal his glory over 2,000 years ago and he still is today! He wasn’t a stranger to those with special needs: he met them, he encountered them, he loved them … and he used them to teach us about himself,” Maggie added.

In addition to the available support from the diocesan Special Needs Ministry, Maggie will answer questions and do whatever she can to help. “I’m just an email away,” she said. “Those with special needs have been such a gift in my life and I want to share that. It wouldn’t be right to keep it to myself.”

Contact her at mprice@sfcatholic.org.