Catechizing the Mentally Handicapped as a Two-Way Street

They Communicate the Gospel Too, Says Sant'Egidio Official

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ROME, FEB. 17, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The Friends Association, a wing of the Rome-based Community of Sant'Egidio, makes it a point of saying it engages in catechesis "with" the handicapped, not "for" the handicapped.



The distinction is important, since the association's philosophy emphasizes participation when it comes to catechizing the mentally handicapped.

The Friends ("Gli Amici" in Italian) have just come out with a book entitled "Jesus as Friend," which explains their experience with the handicapped.

Antonella Antezza of Sant'Egidio Community, director of services for the handicapped, explained to ZENIT how the impaired are agents of evangelization. She described them as people with an intense life of prayer, commitment and sensitivity to others' problems.

Q: How do the mentally handicapped relate to Jesus?

Antezza: Through the heart. The Gospel, like the encounter with Jesus, is for all. Our catechetical endeavor with the handicapped stems from this profound conviction.

The heart is what matters, which, according to the Bible, is the center of man and woman -- not the mind or the psyche, but the heart. The mentally handicapped manifest an intelligence of the heart that is as important as intellectual comprehension.

The book "Jesus as Friend" explains well that the first way to encounter Jesus is as a friend, and to recognize him as "The Friend."

Jesus himself says in the Gospel of John, "I no longer call you servants but friends." The book is not meant to be a catechism but a shared journey.

Q: You began by "catechizing" the handicapped and now you journey with them. How did this change happen?

Antezza: In the beginning, the catechism was for some handicapped adults who had not yet received the sacrament of Communion and/or confirmation.

However, we realized that this initiative could be addressed to everyone: to engage in catechesis not just for the handicapped but with the handicapped.

In this way, they are not only the recipients of the catechesis but, at the same time, they become communicators of the Gospel -- suffice it to read their contributions at the end of the meetings to realize this.

The meetings always take place on Sundays, connected with the eucharistic liturgy.

The most significant moments are connected to the liturgical year and the great feast-events of the life of Jesus. So, we begin with Advent and Christmas, the Way of the Cross, Easter as the central event, and Pentecost, with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the mission of the Church.

A very important and beautiful moment is when the Gospel becomes a living reality, and the Word is applied to life.

We have favored verbal communication in the catechesis, with simple and profound words, using drawings and gestures and songs. They help everyone to identify and to be involved, and we feel part of the history of salvation whose center is Jesus Christ.

Q: Does the Church pay enough attention to the mentally handicapped?

Antezza: Beginning in the '80s, a full debate took place in the Catholic Church regarding the admission of the mentally handicapped to the sacraments, particularly Communion and confirmation, and their participation in the liturgical life of the ecclesial community.

We think that there is greater sensitivity than in the past, and more acceptance, but there are still some prejudices to be overcome.

There is the idea, for example, that "they" are already good because they suffer and that they don't need the sacraments (including confession) or that, given the lack of intellectual comprehension, as the Code of Canon Law explains, they cannot be admitted to the sacraments.

We are convinced that the mentally handicapped are like everyone else and, like everyone, they have a need to convert their lives to the Gospel.

We cannot deny them any part of the Good News or of Christian life. Therefore, we consider them to be real persons.

This evangelical journey with the handicapped has entailed a very important change for them. They have manifested energies and a capacity to understand and adhere to the evangelical message, to pray, to be sensitive to the great problems of the world, and to be committed to others.

In fact, the handicapped have become effective and profound witnesses and communicators of the Gospel, examples for the Christian community.