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Catechists Minister to Children with Special Needs

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Catechists Minister to Children with Special Needs

El Heraldo Católico
Feb. 2012, Vol. 34 No. 2

(Caption: Special Religious Education Catechists, SPRED, from St. Bernard’s Parish in  Oakland, share in a Posada with their “little angels” as they call them).

Each time Juana Tapia goes to catechism class, she returns home filled with peace, serenity and an overflowing sense of happiness.

Tapia is a catechist of Special Religious EDucation, SPRED, at St. Bernard Parish in Oakland. She and her companions bring children and adolescents with Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Mental challenges and other disabilities, closer to the parish life through the teaching of faith.

“Sometimes we think we are giving the children the class, but they are the ones giving us special classes”, says the catechist who has been in this ministry for 13 years thanks to the invitation of a friend.

“I did not know this type of catechesis existed, but when I saw the children I liked it and I stayed”, since then she has not missed a single one of her Thursday meetings.

Each catechist is in charge of a child. At present there are seven children. The session begins with a welcome and 45 minutes of silent activities with instrumental music.

“This time period helps the child to feel peaceful and relaxed”, explains Carmen Lara leader catechist of the SPRED group at St. Bernard’s. After this time with peace, they enter into the celebration room, where the Bible is enthroned with a candle, fresh flowers and a symbol depending on the theme of the session. There is to be little conversation and short phrases. On our last session for example, the symbol was a tree where birds were living. We explained how when it gets cold, the birds leave the tree but are always together looking for a place where the sun is shining. We wanted to teach them the sense of community that we experience when we are together with them.

SPRED uses the method Vivre, it’s based on observation. “More than talking, the children learn from observing. The catechist is the model to follow. With instrumental music playing in the background, catechist work on activities and the children try to do the same without any comments”, says Lara.

This method dates back to the 1960’s when three priests in Europe were looking for alternatives to provide religious education to people with learning problems.

Understanding that traditional methods were totally inappropriate, they came together intuitively paying attention to the environment and the sense of the sacred in the context of the community. This is what it’s now known as the Method Vivre.

SPRED came to the United States thanks to Father James McCarthy of the Archdiocese of Chicago, who following the findings of the European priests, began working with the parents, educators, and volunteer catechists.

From its beginnings SPRED has been incorporated into the diocesan ministries. Internationally only 28 dioceses offer this type of education. Of the 12 dioceses that offer this program in the United States, Oakland is the only one that offers this ministry on the west coast.

“Gerardo, a 23 year old man loves to go into the prayer room”, says Juana Tapia. “For him, coming to church is coming to see Papa Chuy, and for him, it’s the most beautiful thing and it makes him very happy”, adds the catechist who has prepared more than 20 children to receive First Communion and Confirmation.

“The catechist is a friend”, comments Carmen Lara. “Even when these children don’t talk or move their hands, a simple look or smile gives the incentive to go on.

For more information about SPRD in the Oakland Diocese, call the Department of Special Religious Education at 510-635-7252 or by sending an email to info@spredoakdiocese.org

By Jose Luis Aguirre
El Heraldo Católico.

Translated by: Belem Reta, Edited by Inez Albores