As a parent of three children with special needs, Avrill Buerstetta, a parishioner of St. Philip the Apostle Church in Franklin, is thankful that the Church has a catechesis option that better suits her children’s needs.
“Their Catechesis of the Good Shepherd (CGS) model is a play-style format for learning the Catechism,” Buerstetta explained. “That play-based learning has really been a blessing for us.”
St. Philip is one of the churches and schools in the Diocese of Nashville that uses the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The program was created in Rome by Dr. Sofia Cavalletti and allows children to work in an “atrium” environment to learn the Catechism, explained Michaela Miller, director of faith formation for youth and young adults at St. Philip. There are three levels with the children separated into age groups of 3-6, 6-9, and 9-12.
The program is inspired by Maria Montessori’s principles of education.
“It’s all hands-on, manipulative work,” Miller explained. “As Montessori always said, ‘It is the work of the child to play.’
“The reason I think this works so well for kids with special needs is they’re fully integrated into multi-age classrooms with developmentally typical children,” Miller said. “They have older peers that can help guide them, but they also have younger peers that might be closer to where they are intellectually. For example, a child who struggles with ADHD and sitting still is able to walk around the room and learn through manipulatives that allow them to experience God,” she said.
“The fact there has been something available in the area has been great,” Buerstetta said. “I think it’s great that they’re willing to meet the needs of the kids that come to them. They’re being flexible for the kids rather than having the kids be flexible for the program, and I think they learn better that way.”
To bring awareness to programs such as this for other parishes and also supplement their own program, St. Philip is hosting a Catechesis for Persons with Disabilities Workshop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 25, in the church community center.
There will be five focused talks throughout the workshop including: “Our Attitude Must Be That of Christ,” “Invisible Disabilities,” “Physical Disabilities,” “Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities,” and “Guidelines for the Reception of Sacraments for Persons with Disabilities.”
“As Catholics, we are taught that all life has a purpose. God created each and every one of us in His image, and, because of that, we all have a dignity that should be respected,” Miller said. “We are called to defend life from womb to tomb, but all too often we forget what that means in the day to day.
“As a parent to someone who is diagnosed with Level 3 Autism Spectrum Disorder, I can see first-hand where we fall short as a human race and even sometimes as a Church,” she continued. “My heart goes out to all of those who want to learn about Jesus and participate in the sacraments but need us to pivot from our typical day-to-day programs in order for them to do so. I want us to be equipped to walk with them.”
The one-day event is “designed to make our faith formation endeavors accessible to all students, especially those who may have special needs,” according to event materials. “The workshop will look at adaptations and accessibility for all persons with disabilities, but will focus particularly on those with developmental and/or intellectual challenges.”
Sister M. Johanna Paruch, FGSM, Ph.D., is the featured speaker for the workshop.
Sister Paruch is a Sister of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George. She has a bachelor’s degree in theology and education from St. Louis University in Missouri, a master’s degree in religious education from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, and a doctorate in catechetics from Maryvale Institute of the Archdiocese of Birmingham. She also has an undergraduate degree in deaf education.
She has been involved in religious education at every level for more than 40 years and has served as an interpreter and catechist for the Catholic deaf community.
Since 1999, Sister Paruch has been a professor of catechetics for undergraduate and graduate students at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Additionally, she serves as a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, and has worked on special projects for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. She also serves on the board of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.
“I had the privilege of hearing Sister Johanna speak and meet with her at the Bosco Conference this past summer at Franciscan University in Steubenville,” Miller said. “She has accompanied many people who have disabilities and is a wealth of knowledge and compassion. I was so grateful that she agreed to come and lead a version of the conference she normally does on campus for St. Philip and other parishes in the Diocese of Nashville.”
“I’m hoping to make more awareness of the fact that we can serve our brothers and sisters with disabilities,” she said, “and it’s not always as scary as it seems and should be embraced just as Christ would.”
The workshop is $20 per person with lunch included.
To register, visit stphilipfranklin.breezechms.com/form/CatechesisAndDisabilities.