It has always been the mission of ChristSeed, a volunteer organization of parish staff members in the St. Cloud area, to offer opportunities to parishes that, individually, they couldn’t afford or don’t have staff to coordinate on their own.
“Collaborating together, we can do more than we can alone,” said Ginny Duschner, director of faith formation for the parishes of Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and St. John Cantius in St. Cloud and a member of ChristSeed.
One such opportunity is a workshop called, “Enhancing Spirituality for Children with Disabilities,” which will be held from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 14, at St. Francis Xavier Church in Sartell.
The free event is intended for parents, grandparents and anyone who “works with, lives with or loves a child with autism or other special needs,” Duschner said. Catechists from across the diocese also are invited and encouraged to attend.
Duschner has experienced challenges in working with students with disabilities in her faith formation program as well as with one of her own children. She hopes this opportunity will give people tools and encouragement.
“I had a child with ADHD and every time I went to a presentation I learned something that helped me parent him,” Duschner said. “A new idea can be very hopeful. Plus, it is always wonderful to be in community with other parents who are going through the same struggles.”
Duschner noticed a rise in the number of students with special needs in the parish faith formation programs and said it is important to be educated and prepared to help them succeed.
“This particular area is a difficult one to navigate if you are not trained for it, and neither parents nor catechists typically have training to work with special needs children,” she added. “Many people don’t realize that helping a child develop their spiritual side needs to be done very intentionally.”
ChristSeed invited Jennifer Wirz, a special education teacher at Paynesville Area Elementary School and member of Sts. Peter and Paul in Richmond, to facilitate the presentation and discussion.
Wirz, who has volunteered as a faith formation teacher for many years, first became interested in working with children with autism spectrum disorders while working at Catholic Charities. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and teaching as well as a graduate certificate in ASD.
“Pope Francis has done an amazing job of reminding us that we are called to serve one another, no matter the perceived differences,” Wirz said. “He said, ‘A society truly welcomes life when it recognizes that it is also precious in old age, in disability, in serious illness and even when it is fading; when it teaches that the call to human fulfillment does not exclude suffering.’
“We do an adequate job of including people at different ages and stages and ministering to people who are ill, but I’m not sure we are always as inclusive as we could be, Wirz said. “Disabilities vary widely, so it’s a challenge for any church to be 100 percent inclusive, but it’s important that we acknowledge individuals who have specific needs and make good efforts to include everyone in our services and in our formation.”
Wirz was asked to discuss primarily autism spectrum disorders but her goal is also to promote dialogue around how to make catechesis accessible to all.
“It’s important to try our best to make faith and community accessible,” she said. “We can’t use the excuse of ‘I don’t know enough’ as a way to avoid including people. We have to try, even if it means that we don’t do it right at first.”
Duschner added that children with differing abilities of any kind are often “marginalized” in society.
“Catholic social teaching says that a society is measured by how well it takes care of the poor or vulnerable,” she said. “And since these children are also created in the image and likeness of God, anything that increases our ability to understand them increases our ability to treat them with the dignity they deserve. By becoming more aware of their faith journeys, they can show us the face of God.”
For more information, contact Ginny Duschner at 320-252-0535 or Linda Arnold at 320-252-8761, ext. 1410.