Special students celebrate Christ’s friendship
By Julie Filby
Photo by James Baca/DCR:
Adrian Resendez, 21, was all smiles as he stood at the top step of the sanctuary proclaiming the word of God from the first letter of John (Jn 5:1-6) at Mass on Sunday. His mother Michelle and grandfather Frank snapped photos and beamed with pride from their seats at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception as he read.
The afternoon liturgy April 15 at the Cathedral Basilica marked the annual Mass for Special Religious Education recognizing participants and families served by the Denver Archdiocese’s Office of Special Religious Education and Pastoral Care.
Adrian, a parishioner of Light of the World Church in Littleton, has participated in the ministry for nearly 15 years.
“Adrian has pretty much grown up with (the Special Religious Education program),” said Michelle Resendez. “He’s had all the sacraments … (and) years ago, when they first started doing classes, he started helping as an acolyte.”
Along with Adrian, members from several parishes and communities assisted with the Mass including Bill Malone from St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial and Maria Peek from the Bridge Community who also served as lectors; and J.J. Sturm of Spirit of Christ Church in Arvada and Jamie Ervin of Queen of Peace Church in Aurora who were altar servers; among others.
The Office of Special Religious Education and Pastoral Care coordinates catechesis and sacraments for 11 parish-based religious education programs; delivers pastoral care to profoundly disabled residents at the Wheat Ridge Regional Center; and runs the Bridge Community, a state licensed intermediate-care group home for eight adult women. Overall the ministry serves about 250 participants—with varying degrees of mental and physical disabilities—as well as their families.
“I used to think the main thing was to educate the kids,” Sister of Loretto Mary Catherine Widger, co-founder of the program and associate director since its inception in 1976, told the Denver Catholic Register. “But many of them can’t be educated—what they learn from is the love, the community and talking about Jesus in a happy way.”
Relationship is key, she said.
“It’s really about forming a relationship with Jesus,” said Sister Widger. “Forming the friendship (is important to them) because they are experts at that.
“They are just experts when it comes to matters of the heart.”
Father Roland Freeman, director of the ministry since 1998 following the death of his twin brother Father Lawrence Freeman, co-founder of the office with Sister Widger, spoke of matters of the heart in his homily.
“We have all kinds of disabilities,” he told the congregation, during an energetic homily that took him up and down the balloon-adorned main aisle of the cathedral. “When we love one another in our weaknesses, we’re just like Jesus.”
Illustrating a theme of new life, Father Freeman pulled a toy caterpillar from a box—a specially decorated box traditionally used at the annual Mass. After he allowed the caterpillar time to “rest,” Father Freeman drew a vibrant blue butterfly from the box.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked the captivated congregation. “The butterfly reminds us that God gives us new life … that’s what happened to Jesus … and this is what Easter is all about: the Risen Christ placing the Spirit inside us … and sending us forth.”
Following the homily, members from each of the 18 communities represented at the Mass processed down the aisle, some in wheelchairs, to present a gift—symbolic of the Mass’ theme, “Alleluia! Alleluia!”—to Bishop James Conley, apostolic administrator and main celebrant for the Mass.
As Bishop Conley accepted a brightly decorated butterfly from each group—a cheerful display that flanked the tabernacle for the remainder of Mass—he personally greeted each individual with a warm welcome, a handshake and a blessing.
“The family needs to know that the Church cares,” Sister Widger told the Register. “That’s one of the reasons this Mass is so important; when a bishop takes the time ... it speaks volumes.
“This is our 39th Mass and every bishop, starting with Archbishop (James V.) Casey, has greeted every single person.”
In a 1978 pastoral letter as part of their pro-life activities, the U.S. bishops encouraged dioceses to embrace the “responsibility to our own disabled brothers and sisters in the United States … by furthering their spiritual, intellectual, moral and physical development.”
“They have a right to it,” said Sister Widger, speaking on the importance of religious education and faith formation. “They have a right to have people walk with them on this friendship journey.”
The Mass closed with the congregation clapping, stomping and shouting “Hooray!” as they sang and danced to “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
Read related story about autism here.