Faith formation: Welcoming a child with special needs at the Easter Vigil

By Lisa Salas
Guest Columnist

This year our parish welcomed 37 new Catholics at the Easter Vigil Mass. Three had special needs. One 8-year-old child, in particular, is moderately to severely autistic and has a wide range of difficulties. From the beginning, we welcomed the child, who has a twin brother, and the whole family to the church and to our faith formation process. I assured his single mother that the church would collaborate with her to help him celebrate all three sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist. She was surprised to hear that we would help, especially, since she was coming in with the attitude that her extended family wanted this for her children more than she did. She was doing this for them, she said. 
Throughout the year, there were multiple miscommunications and other challenges; however, we continued to welcome the kids with open arms. I remember being frustrated at times, but I knew that the daily life challenges this family faces were more than I could imagine. I knew my frustration was not from God. Jesus showed mercy and love to everyone, no matter their circumstances, challenges or attitudes. I have no idea what it is like to have twins, much less twins with special needs.
As time passed, the twins always had someone accompany them in the classroom or waiting out in the hallway if needed. Sometimes it was their Spanish-only speaking grandmother, sometimes it was their hesitant mom, and sometimes it was their bilingual aunt. There was a village helping this young mother and their commitment was beautiful. 
As Lent arrived and the planning for the Easter Vigil began; it was time to meet with the mom and offer her a couple of options for celebrating the sacraments. To accommodate the sensitive needs of her child, her options were to celebrate the sacraments at the nearly three-hour Easter Vigil Mass, or at a daily Mass at a later date; or at a private Mass with the family so as to provide a calmer, quieter environment. She chose the Easter Vigil Mass because her other two children would “be there anyway.” 
I was hesitant to accept her answer because of all of the things that could possibly happen. How would the child do at a three-hour evening Mass? How would he react to the waters of baptism being poured over his head while he knelt in the baptismal font? How would he possibly be still? How would he be able to change quickly out of the wet robe to the dry clothes for the remainder of the Mass? I couldn’t even begin to plan for all of these possibilities.
The answer to all of my frantic questions was simple –– the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says, “The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.” Of course, I had to trust the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Helper. Why should I worry? Our human nature often leads us to try and control things, plan things and worry; but our God says, “Trust the Holy Spirit and everything will be fine.” Lesson learned!
We didn’t capture the perfect angelic baptismal photo, and we lost a name tag along the way (I had another one ready … just in case), but this innocent and cherished beloved child of God, has since opened the eyes of a hesitant mother, put the family at peace because he is baptized, been received and adopted into the family of God and gave me a lesson in trusting the Holy Spirit. No matter how messy the journey might be on the outside, the journey closer to God on the inside is always the right one. 
As we form children and adults in the faith, may we continue to trust the Holy Spirit in the ministry work that we do and may we serve people entrusted to our care with open hearts and open arms –– just like Jesus! 
A workshop on sacramental formation for persons with special needs will be offered Oct. 9 from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the diocesan Pastoral Center. For details, call (512) 949-2492.