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St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the luck of the Irish

I’ve always been a tiny bit concerned about James making his sacraments. Being from a huge Catholic family, sacraments – Baptism, Penance, First Communion, Confirmation – happened nearly as often as birthdays, and more people usually showed up to celebrate them. With the exception of baptisms, the sacraments required at least a year of religious ed in a classroom full of children, special preparation for each sacrament followed by testing, and a big ceremony in a church with lots of other kids. Penance involved confessing your wrongdoing/sins to a priest, Communion was consuming the Body and Blood of Christ, and Confirmation involved receiving the Holy Spirit. Perfectly suited in so many ways for the special needs population.

My mom says that James is special and guaranteed a place in heaven no matter what sacraments he receives. I wholeheartedly agree with her. But as I had more children, I began to wonder – what would James think as he saw each of them make the sacraments? Would he feel left out? Would he miss out on a tradition that every other member of our family had experienced?

Every time we moved and changed churches I asked the priest about the possibility of James participating in a modified religious ed program or us preparing him for sacraments at home. It was  at our most recent parish, Ascension Church on the UWS, that the priest finally referred us to some people who could help us. We found out about a confirmation service for disabled people at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It just happened to be the day after the Central Park Challenge – a weekend of celebrating disabilities – so it worked out perfectly.

The service was beautiful and professionally run, as to be expected at a place like St. Patrick’s. It would probably be a little bit boring, especially to my non-Catholic readers, to hear all about the ceremony. So that’s not what this post is really about.

Not unexpectedly, the confirmation was filled with disabled people. James was on the younger side of the 28 others who came to be confirmed. Each special needs candidate sat with their sponsor and immediate family in an assigned pew in the front of the cathedral so that the Archbishop could personally walk over to each of them instead of trying to line everyone up.

Though it has been over a decade since I entered the special needs universe, it still amazes me to see how many manifestations a disability can take. Disabilities truly know no prejudice – families large and small, young and old, black, white and brown, were all seated pew by pew with their loved one. Some candidates were more obviously disabled than others – James was somewhere in the middle, I think. Occasionally, there would be an outburst of noise from a candidate or a quiet scuffle from one of the pews as parents worked to keep their children calm and comfortable. This was a place where nobody stared or looked surprised, annoyed or even interested. We’d all been there, done that, in one way or another. We were seated in front of another family with 3 children – they were somewhere between the ages of 7-16. The middle of the three was a boy with down syndrome, maybe 12 or 13 years old.

After everyone had been confirmed, the Archbishop again walked to each pew to personally give each candidate communion. As Archbishop Dolan moved on from our pew there was a commotion in the aisle beside him. A teenage boy paced up and down the aisle. He was quite ordinary looking aside from the shoe he clutched tightly in his hand, and was chewing on. His movements were jerky and anxious, and I felt my own heartbeat increase as I watched his caregiver approach him and coax him back to his seat. It took some work, too. My heart went out to that family, and I looked over at James, who had been sitting peacefully through the entire service and was watching the scene with interest.

As the boy in the family behind us received communion, the teenager wielding the shoe jumped up again and had to be guided back to his row, with some effort. Being in the front of the cathedral, it was hard not to be a show-stopper to some extent. As the Archbishop moved on, the mother in the row behind us began to cry quietly into a tissue. Her daughter, the oldest of the three, put an arm around her and gave her a kiss. “It’s okay, mom,” she said. “I love you.” The mother said through her tears, “We are just so lucky. Our family is so lucky.” I felt tears in my own eyes. When was the last time I had thought about our situation as lucky?

As we packed up to leave after the service, the mother commented on how well-behaved our children had been during mass (my 2 yr old was with her grandparents in the back) and commented on what a beautiful family we had. I said thank you and congratulated them as well, but I’m sure they don’t realize what I was really saying thank you for.

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