Preparing children for their first reconciliation is a big responsibility at any Catholic school or parish. But St Lucy’s Catholic Primary School has a special job: preparing children with disabilities for the sacrament.
Since St Lucy’s has around 120 students with moderate to severe intellectual and some physical disabilities, parents are often concerned about whether their child can grasp the concepts of sin, repentance and forgiveness that are essential to understanding the sacrament of reconciliation.
‘Their fears are, “Why am I bothering going through this process? They won’t have a clue about what’s going on”’, says Michelle Jones who runs the school’s reconciliation program and is also the head of St Lucy’s Charism and Pastoral Care.
Before the program begins, the school hosts an information night, so parents’ concerns and questions can be addressed. Michelle explains, ‘We reassure them this is not just ticking boxes. It’s to make sure the students are getting something from it.’
Up to 12 students undertake the sacrament of reconciliation at St Lucy’s each year, mostly those who will be eight years old in the calendar year. With the help of the parish priest, the program was developed over many years to meet the catechism requirements, but adjusted to students’ comprehension level. Through morality picture books, the acting out of the Gospel stories with puppets, and practising good choices, students are prepared for the sacrament over three weeks.
‘We try and keep a positive focus. Rather than looking at things you’ve done wrong that you need to repent for, we look at the process of making good choices’, says Michelle, who also has been a classroom teacher at St Lucy's for nine years.
A meaningful sacramental experience
Accompanied by a parent, St Lucy’s students make their first confession with the use of picture cards on a visual board and, more recently, an iPad. The cards and iPad allow students to show what good choice(s) they want to make in the future. The choices are individualised to the child’s comprehension levels. Some children have up to 15 choices to choose from, while others have only two. Michelle says individualised choices makes it meaningful to each student.
The children also say a simple Act of Contrition, ‘I’m sorry and I want to be good.’ Through keyword sign (a combination of manual signs and natural gestures) nonverbal children are able to say this contrition too.
Michelle sees the impact it has on her students. ‘It’s an opportunity for the children to communicate not about if they want a drink or if the car is red, but they are communicating about their actual feelings and what they want in their life. It lets them expand what they are doing in their classrooms and use skills they are learning to make themselves a better person and to give more of themselves to their family.’
What sets St Lucy’s program apart?
Michelle says it’s pragmatic. ‘It’s not just about Church dogma. It’s how you can live out the Gospel. We show them this is how you repent: doing positive things and making up for the fact that you may not have made good choices in the past.’
Once the students have completed the Reconciliation program, they immediately start preparing for their first communion.
Church a community for life
St Lucy’s school believes the Church needs to be a safe place for their students and families. Michelle says this begins with taking students through the sacraments, familiarising them with the Mass and making families feel welcome. This sense of community reaches beyond the school years.
‘A lot of the families don’t go to church anymore, because people frown at them when their child is making so much noise and wanting to run around’, explains Michelle.
‘Each child is a part of a family, so when that child is not welcomed the whole family is not welcomed. The Church should be the ones who are accepting them and showing others how to accept them.’
Each term the school holds a family Mass which is friendly to St Lucy’s families. Michelle adds families can find a haven in the school’s family Mass and this is essential to nurturing their children’s place in the greater Catholic community.
‘We look way down the track when these children are adults. It’s likely that the Church may be one community where they can belong when they are older, because they often offer opportunities and activities for people with disabilities.
‘By having Mass for the children, encouraging their families to come to these Masses and hopefully going to their own parish church, little by little, these barriers can be broken down.’