By Cathi Douglas     9/7/2016

Dear Jesus, help me remember the person I am walking beside is a person first and that their disability does not define them. Help me treat the person I serve with respect, dignity, compassion and understanding. Help me learn to appreciate our differences… Thank you, Lord, for this amazing opportunity to serve your people in this way. I ask that you please bless the work of my hands. Amen.

—From a prayer before serving as an aide to those with special needs

Andrea West refers to herself as “a pioneer rogue” when reminiscing about the beginnings of her work to involve persons with special needs in Orange County’s Catholic parishes.

Fourteen years ago — wanting to ensure that her nephew with autism would receive the Sacraments — West started a class promoting faith formation, sacramental preparation and socialization for Catholics with special needs in her parish, St. Joseph’s in Placentia. When she moved to St. Juliana’s Parish in Fullerton, she started a similar course there. One hundred families went through the program.

Fourteen years later, West’s nephew has made his confirmation. “I’m really excited that hundreds of others have made their way” in receiving the sacraments at the appropriate times, she says. In the beginning, she notes, many people had no patience for West’s determination, but “I’m a strong woman and you have to persevere.”

Special needs Catholics make up a sizable portion of the nation’s faithful: The National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities says 14 percent of Catholics have some type of disability.

In 2011, the Diocese of Orange Office for Faith Formation invited selected therapists, special education teachers, theologians, doctors and parents to form the Special Needs Advisory Circle. “We have built a coalition of social and spiritual support within our faith community to help parishes and families with special needs grow in holiness to love and serve our Lord,” says Annette Z. Venegas, program assistant in the Diocesan Parish Faith Formation office. “We promote accessibility of mind and heart, so that all persons with disabilities may be welcome not only at worship, but at every level of service as full members of the Body of Christ.”

West believes that one in four people have some type of disability. “Our programs are not just for kids with autism,” she explains. “Anyone with a disability or limitation is welcome. We need to find ways to make it as simple as possible to become part of the faith community.”

West currently chairs the Special Needs Advisory Circle, which meets four times a year and works with the faith community by offering training and support for special needs programs. The Circle has developed “Guidelines for Inclusion and Faith Formation for Persons with Special Needs” for use in parish ministries. It is available on the Circle’s website at rcbo.org/group/special-needs-advisory-circle/

“This is truly an exciting time for the church,” West notes. “Special needs ministries continue to develop throughout the Diocese of Orange. By nurturing a collaborative approach, and by His grace, we can all come together and continue to grow.” The Special Needs Advisory Circle website and the guidelines posted there are intended to assist parishes in responding to special needs individuals in their parish community and to support their full inclusion in the life of the faith community.

Persons with special needs, whether they are mentally challenged or physically disabled, want what every Catholic wants, West says. “They want acceptance, respect, to be welcomed and to be treated the same at others. They want all the same things we do. They bring the image and face of God, teaching us patience, perseverance and acceptance.”

West talks to parents and grandparents who never thought their special needs children would be able to sit through a Mass or understand the Body of Christ. They are thrilled that their loved ones are accepted at church, where they find a community and receive the sacraments.

“They are thankful we are here to help,” she says.

Venegas says that parishioners can ensure that those with special needs are contributing members by:

Ÿ Developing faith formation and socialization opportunities at the parish level for children and adults with special needs

Ÿ Supporting the development of sacramental preparation programs located and identified in each deanery, for children and adults with special needs

Ÿ Assisting in the training and formation of qualified ministers to serve as catechists for this population

Ÿ Proving ministerial formation for those persons with special needs to empower them to share their gifts with others

At Holy Family Cathedral, the Sunday Coffee House meets once a month, providing a place for worship and socialization for parishioners with special needs.

“Their presence is a ministry of God’s beloved brothers and sisters worshipping together from all walks of life and from different challenges,” says Father Troy Schneider, parochial vicar. “The challenges in our own lives may pale in comparison to others, and yet they are still alive in their faith and happy to be here.”

In fact, Father Troy says, parishioners with special needs are reminders of who we are as God’s children. “Everyone has something to offer,” he adds. “We use the gifts we have.”


Special Needs Ministries in Diocese of Orange


St. Juliana Falconieri, Fullerton (faith formation and Sacramental Prep – multiple disability, ages 7-22)

St. Joseph, Santa Ana (faith formation in both English and Spanish, elementary school age)

St. John Neumann, Irvine (faith formation for children with disabilities preK-6th)

We support children with making their Sacraments and Faith Formation classes through special needs classes, mainstreaming and individual teaching methods. We welcome all children and ages into our program.

St. Bonaventure Parish, Huntington Beach (Sacramental Prep for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders)

St. Kilian Parish, Mission Viejo (faith formation and Sacramental Prep, teens with Downs Syndrome)

Holy Family Cathedral, Orange – The Cathedral Coffee House,18-60 years, socialization, faith formation and Sacramental Prep. The Cathedral Coffee House is part of the Embraced by Love Ministries at Holy Family Cathedral. This is an outreach ministry to all adults 18 years of age or older, who are developmentally challenged. We meet monthly for Mass Together on Sunday at 5 PM and then have our Coffee House Meeting and dinner immediately after Mass in The Loft. While the Coffee House is Catholic-based, anyone with or without a particular faith expression, is always welcome. For more information, please contact Becky Davis / Pastoral Care Ministry Office at Holy Family Cathedral at 714 639 2900 ext. 210.

Santiago de Compostela Lake Forest – Friends in Faith, socialization, faith formation and Sacramental Prep

Catholic Deaf Community is a department of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange; the Catholic Deaf Community is dedicated to minister to Deaf Catholics and their families. Our office staff is fluent in American Sign Language as well as in Spanish and is sensitive to the unique needs and experiences of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Catholics.


For more information on Special Needs Ministries in the Diocese of Orange contact the Special Needs Advisory Circle at (714) 282-3039 or at [email protected].