That continuing sense of entitlement

That continuing sense of entitlement

“Fighting for First Communion”

Although she is partially deaf, Madison Smith is a typical 9-year-old girl.

She wants to be a teacher when she grows up. She feels like people don’t always understand her.

And as a Catholic, she wants to fully understand what it means to take part in her First Communion.

Although Madison was supposed to make her First Communion in April 2007, she may not able to, said her mother, Diane Smith.

Smith wanted Madison to have an interpreter in religious education classes at St. Ann Church in Lansing so she could understand what communion means. Smith said she began speaking with church and school officials in September in order to find an interpreter for her daughter.

In November the school said it would provide an interpreter if the mother agreed to attend classes with her daughter. The mom said she was too busy and didn’t have time.

This is the problem with much of Catholic religious education. We treat it like we treat the school system: as an institution over to which we hand our children to be indoctrinated. The first responsibility for the religious education and catechesis of our children belongs to the parents, not the parish or the Church as a whole. We are under no obligation under canon law to hand over our children to a parish or school to prepare them for First Communion. In fact, I would say that the normative place for such education is in the home. When I was coordinator for my parish’s religious education program, all too often I saw parents who simply dropped off their children with the expectation that we would make them Catholic despite the fact that the rest of the week they had no discernible Catholic formation.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing for the deaf girl’s parish and school to provide an interpreter, but I don’t think they have a moral obligation to do so. Rather than expressing a sense of entitlement regarding First Communion and religious education, maybe the girl’s parents need to assess their own priorities.

“I have never in my 36 years of life felt so abandoned and attacked by my church,” Smith said. “If I’m not going to be an advocate (for Madison), who is going to be?”

Instead of being an “advocate,” why not be a role model and teacher and catechist for your daughter?

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
22 comments
  • But in the absense of a sensible and responsible mother, the parish should have stepped in and done everything possible to catechize this girl.

    While the US Catholic Bishops writings are binding per se, I think they are on the right track with this: http://www.nccbuscc.org/doctrine/disabilities.htm

    Persons with disabilities have the right to the teachings of the faith in all it’s “rigor and vigor” (from Catechesi Tradendae).  I can’t agree with you that this is an instance of entitlement. We are all entitled to receive catechetical formation by virtue of our baptism into the Catholic Faith. That her mother claims to be “too busy” is tragic, but this means that yes, the parish needs to step in and be that Catechetical teacher in her place.

    Simply because Persons with Disabilities aren’t “typical” doesn’t meant that we as a Church can’t make strides to include them, teach them, reach out to them, and minister to them-AND have them be part of the ministry of the Church with their own unique gifts and talents.

    I think there are lots of us, tired with feeling run over by radical folks that it’s hard to want to accomodate PWD. But they are God’s children as well and we are responsible to care for them as we do any others.

  • Interesting. 

    she wants to fully understand what it means

    If she doesn’t already understand that, her parents have failed in their duty.

    Now my 9 year old son is blind and the RE department went out of their way to get a Braille version of the curriculum.  I went to every class with him so as not to burden the instructors who had no clue about Braille.  (I at least have a cursory knowledge and was able to help him find his place.)

    But your point is correct.  Parents are too willing to hand over their children and the DREs and leaders are so willing to be elevated to that level of “essential”.

  • When I started with the article, I was on the mother’s side, but the bit about not having the time changed things.

    The Church, as an institution, is extremely unfair to disabled people.  This doesn’t have to do with “entitlement” but basic human dignity.

    I was ridiculed in First Communion class by the rich Catholic school students for my posture and holding the book close to see.  My parents complained to the principal, who blamed them for being too poor to send me to Catholic school. 
    “If they knew him, they wouldn’t make fun of him.”
    “If they’re going to a Catholic school,” said my parents, “They should be taught not to make fun of anyone.”

    Then, when Confirmation time came along, our parish at that time had a rule that you couldn’t be confirmed if you missed a single Confirmation class.  Kind of hard when you barely make it to school every day.  Thankfully, my (now at a Catholic school) principal wrote a letter to the bishop, and I was privately confirmed.  Meanwhile, a classmate who had Cystic Fibrosis *was* denied Confirmation, and, as far as I know, died without ever being confirmed.

    There are parents of Down Syndrome children whose children are denied the Sacraments because of this nonsense about understanding them.

    Yet my two year old and four year old understand Transubstantiation better than most adults.

    Denying the Sacraments to the disabled based upon man-made technicalities flies in the very face of the Gospel.

    But so do parents who try to treat the Sacraments as merely a social ritual, and those who try to pawn their children’s religious education off on the system without actively participating.

  • Perhaps the mother in this situation could have offered to hire a translator herself to assist her daughter in the class if the Church was not forthcoming about providing one.  As far as the mother being too busy, I can sympathize.  Depending on the ages of her 3 other children, she was probably already swamped with responsibilities towards them.

    I do think it would be helpful if churches were more cognizant of disabled people.  When I was a member of the Methodist Church, I thought this particular church was so very kind and caring because they had a special group of mentally disabled adults with their own Sunday School class, and their own area of pews towards the front of church where they sat each Sunday, assisted by a couple of volunteers.  There was also a lay person at the front of church who did sign language to interpret the service.

    Maybe the Catholics should take a tip from the Orthodox who allow even infants to receive Holy Communion.  Maybe a person doesn’t need to understand every jot and tittle of transsubstantiation in order to appreciate the Eucharist.

  • You know, the mother could certainly try harder to be involved in her daughter’s religious ed class, but the way it is worded in the original article:

    Smith said she met with school officials on Nov. 22 and was informed the church would hire an interpreter on a trial basis if she agreed to attend the classes with her daughter. Smith said because she has four children and other responsibilities, that would not work for her.

    comes off a bit differently from

    In November the school said it would provide an interpreter if the mother agreed to attend classes with her daughter. The mom said she was too busy and didn’t have time.

    I don’t know which is closer to reality. Certainly, she should make every effort possible to be involved in her daughter’s class, but I also think that the parish should be making a reasonable effort to make sure that the girl gets the catechesis that she should. There’s probably enough blame to go around, but given the limited information we have here, I can’t see how it’s possible to lay it all on the mother.

    You’re certainly right, Dom, that it is primarily the parents’ obligation to form their children in their faith. Unfortunately, so many parishes give you a hard time when you want to do just that.

  • Why does the parish require the mother to attend the class ALONG with the interpreter? Because they knew the mother couldn’t make it and then they could get out of providing the interpreter? Because they knew they weren’t going to get an interpreter and they would make the mother be the interpreter?

    The parish blew it in my opinion. If they wanted the parents to cathecize their kids they wouldn’t hold the Sacraments hostage by requiring attendance at CCD.It has been like pulling teeth to get some of my homeschool cathecized children permission to receive the Sacraments. But it was a battle.

  • 1. Beware of relying on the media account. Could be more to the story that gives it very different color—both in how the parish is depicted, and the family.

    2. Hiring an interpreter—what does that cost? Can the parish afford it?

    3. I wondered if the issue really was the mother’s presence, or rather, the mother’s level of commitment—which may be what the parish was really after.

    4. Which leads me to wonder, was there an issue of the child showing up regularly for RE? Anyone in a religious education program will tell you that attendance can be spotty—people just don’t show up, without any warning or consideration of the catechists who prepare. When a class for RE can be two or three students, this can make things difficult. If I were that pastor, I’d sure not want to hire an interpreter to be there every week, and have the child not always be there.

    5. Why did the issue arise in November—not before? RE usually parallels the school year; I wonder what the start-date for this parish was. If it was in September or even early October, why didn’t this issue arise sooner? If the mother didn’t show up at the parish’s doors till November, that might explain why the parish wanted some show of greater involvement. (For that matter, what was the situation in the child’s first year of RE? Kindergarten?)

  • There’s just so much we want to say about this situation, but none of us knows the real story.

    One thing we can say is this:  the Church doesn’t require that children have to understand transubstantiation; rather, they have to have faith that it occurs!

    I know personally dozens of young men and women with Down syndrome who have validly received Communion because they know – with the certainty of faith – that they’re receiving Jesus.

    After all, is there anyone who really understands transubstantiation?  I don’t.

  • Because they knew the mother couldn’t make it and then they could get out of providing the interpreter? Because they knew they weren’t going to get an interpreter and they would make the mother be the interpreter?

    Wow, Mary. And people accuse me of jumping to conclusions.

  • The parents of a child, together to some extent with its godparents, should be its primary catechists.  I grew up under what were, for Massachusetts Catholics, extraodinary circumstances: less than ten percent of my town’s population shared my faith, so that the Catholic church in town was classed as a “mission,” and until the late ‘fifties had only one Mass each Sunday at 9:00 am.  I lived three miles out of the village where the church was, and my mother did not drive. 
    So I was excused by our very considerate pastor, who knew my family well, from attending CCD to prepare for first communion.  Shortly before the date set for the other second graders to receive, he interview me and quizzed me orally to make sure that I came up to the minimun canonical standard (which is not set very high).  I passed with flying colors.
    Six years later, as an eighth grader preparing for confirmation, I enrolled in the confirmation class offered, which started out having a pious local housewife as its teacher.  She lasted for about three sessions, after which, in the absence of an adult volunteer, the administrator (as he was called) of the mission asked me if I could take over.  Since in those days all the confirmands were my fellow eighth-graders, and since I was the president of the eighth-grade class, I thought they would probably listen to me, and I accepted the assignment.  They were well enough prepared, at the end of May, to pass muster before the priest, and we all got confirmed. 
    My point is relating these experiences is to show that I was able to pass the interview for first communion and effectively to prepare my fellow confirmands to receive that sacrament six years later because my own parents took their obligation to raise me in the faith seriously and did an excellent job of it.  Somehow, we have to convince today’s parents that they bear the primary responsibility for the catechizing of their own children. 
    This does not mean that they should feel they have to do this in isolation from the parish and other larger ecclesial structures.  But they do have to feel ultimately responsible and must be prepared to carry out this responsibility competently.  This is where the parish and its professionals (clergy and lay) come in.
    In fact, I think that, in a historical situation in which diocesan and parish resources are in some places very restricted, those limited resources should be directed to adult education in the faith, with the notion that the adults can then, within their own families and households and even neighborhoods, provide effective religious eduction to their own children and, when necessary, to the children of their relatives, friends, and neighbors.

  • Fr. Fox,
    in the quote from the article above, it mentions that the mother originally went to them about this in September. According to the original article, when they didn’t get back to her, she went back again in Nov. As to the child being in RE classes before this, the original article mentions that she has not, since there has not been an interpreter for her. Since the primary mode of teaching in a classroom setting tends to be auditory (ie, lectures) since she’s deaf, that’s not really surprising.

    The mother probably should have been instructing her all along, but given how poorly catechized most folks are these days, the fact that she didn’t is not surprising, either.

  • When my daughter was due to be confirmed, our business required that we be out of town nearly every weekend during the fall when the Confirmation class met.  Confirmation without the class was not an option.  The pastor agreed that she could attend the RCIA class which met on Wednesday nights if I would attend with her.  It turned out to be a very positive experience for me because I learned from the class that so much of what I thought had been discarded after Vatican II was still very much a part of the faith.  RCIA restored my confidence in the Church, and my daughter was confirmed at the Easter Vigil.

  • So it’s okay to “jump to conclusions” about the mother, her intentions, her level of commitment to her child and the Faith but it’s not okay to “jump to conclusions” or form an opinion about the parish.

    I see.

  • I formed an opinion based on what I read in the article. On what basis do you assume that the parish cared nothing for the child, but wanted to get out of providing the interpreter?

  • I base it on the fact that the parish didn’t say to the mother- “Please try to come to the classes if you can. We will be happy to provide an interpreter like we said we would.”

  • I can see where those who have special needs children would have a different oppinion on this matter.  I have 2 autistic boys and my youngest is making his first communion this year and yes, I am scared.  While I do my best here at home and talk to my kids constantly about faith, I worry at the last minute they will say “he doesn’t get it” and deny him communion.  I know there is a diocese that has created a special instruction manual for autistic kids for sacrament preparation and I find that nobel.  I don’t have unrealistic expectations of his school since we are all trying to find a way inside his head.  I am one of the few parents who has found a Catholic school to take my sons.  I also went into it knowing it may come to homeschooling some day if they could no longer handle things.  Since I also run the family business, this would be beyond difficult but I’m sure God would help me find the way.

  • Thorn,

    Imagine *being* the special needs child.  I’ve come to observe that there are no canonized saints who are developmentally disabled or who suffered from ‘birth defects’ (as opposed to disabilities and genetic defects that developed later in life).  There are a few blesseds, and they’re the exceptions that prove the rule.

    This article is really lacking in details, but I can see it from both sides.

    On the one hand, I know what it is to beg the Church for spiritual nourishment, much less physical assistance, and be shut out.  I could write a whole book just of my bad experiences with the Church in this regard. 

    I sympathize with “pushy mothers” who fight for their disabled children, because I’m alive today because I had such a “pushy mother”.  When you’re 19 years old, and you have a 5.5 cm aortic aneurysm, and the doctors tell you you have weeks to live with a surgery that has a high probability of killing you on the operating table, I’d say one is entitled to receive the Sacraments.

    On the other hand, if I had been the child in this situation, and the parish had asked, in repsonse to my mother’s request for assistance, that she sit in on the CCD class, my mother would have done so.  As it was, when I was in CCD, she sat in the hallway.

    A few years ago, there was a big todo about a mother whose child had celiac disease (around the same time we found out one of our daughters has it), and she was complaining in the media about the cruel Church forbidding her daughter from receiving a rice-based Host.
    In reality, the parish had offered to let the child receive from the Cup alone, as is standard practice for people with wheat allergies.

    The mother in that case was more concerned with the symbolism adn social ritual of First Communion, and about making a statement against the Church. 

    It’s hard to say, based upon this article alone, which is the case here.  But if it’s the latter, she gives us all a bad name.

  • Is there an equivalent of the SPRED progam for the deaf and/or blind? Sometimes it helps to take care of catechesis at the diocesan level, where one interpreter, etc, could take care of those with special needs more efficiently. This case points up a need, but it also sounds like a communication problem (complete with injured feelings) between the mother and her pastor, ie, it sounds like it just requires a Round 2, or so.
    Regarding entitlement, we Americans are tending more and more to expect instant gratification, double, dry, 180 degrees, 2 equal, with whipped cream, etc.
    Is it just us? I dunno.

  • Joanne,
    Are you really suggesting that desiring the Sacraments is seeking “instant gratification”.

    What a concept. And please remember this is a mother asking that her child receive Holy Communion. She is seeking NOTHING for herself.

    I’m still waiting for an answer about why the parish /pastor was requiring that the mother attend the CCD classes as a quid pro quo for providing an interpreter?

  • As a hard of hearing priest and a student of Deaf Studies at Northeastern, I have to say that even though the parish isn’t required to provide an interpreter, they should.  Hard of hearing and Deaf children are not treated well in our culture.  The U.S. is one of the worst countries in the West in their treatment of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

    I was corresponding with a Deaf woman from Sweden and she spent a year in the U.S. in an exchange program and she was shocked at how badly Deaf people are treated.  Things that happen to her here never happened to her back home.  Americans don’t like people with disabilities.  They expect the State to take care of them.  I am so tired of learning from the Deaf that their fathers refused to learn sign language.  So many of them never had relationships with their fathers.

    Should the Church provide and interpreter.  Absolutely.  One of the programs in my future hypothetical Deaf Ministry program is to provide funding for interpreters and workshops for interpreters of religion classes and Masses.  Never again.

  • What i meant is that when a special need is expressed as a demand that, by RIGHT, should be fulfilled pronto and according to the specifications of the “client” that need may not be heard with the appropriate compassion and immediacy because even pastors are human. I think we must become more aware of anyone with special needs in our parishes, and must do all that we can to meet and exceed those needs. Sometimes, however, there must be some understanding and patience on the part of the needy, due to the realities of a lack of funding, a lack of resources, and the time it takes to formulate the BEST response for all concerned. Sometimes, within a diocese, such formulation needs to take place at the diocesan level with the attention and approval of the bishop, so as to ensure not only the best particular response, but the response that will best benefit all those with similar needs within the diocese.
    From what I read, there wasn’t much Christian dialogue going on in the given case. It sounded more like a failed Starbucks transaction NOT because of the need being addressed or not, but the manner in which it was being communicated and received. If I am wrong in my reading, I apologize.
    That being said, our ministry to the deaf or hard-of-hearing (which I think should be parish-specific—there are MANY elderly parishioners in most parishes who haven’t heard the liturgy in years)is flailing at best. We’ve tried two special sound systems in my parish to deal with this and they were ineffective. We have a wonderful deaf priest who (I think) “floats” from one parish to another to say Masses, but we definitely need to do more.
    NO ONE should have to be without the sacraments or religious education because of a disability. I’m just advocating for kindness on both sides rather than an attack-defense method of communication.

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