Persons, places and things: make room in the pew


By Barb Arland-Fye

Forty years ago, Nancy Thompson attended a meeting in her archdiocese for parents of children with intellectual disabilities that inspired her as a mother and impacted her ministry to the church.


The priest leading the meeting asked parents, including Nancy, mother of 6-year-old Larry, questions with predictable answers. Yes, the parents viewed their children as angels who would go directly to heaven upon death. And yes, faith formation wasn’t a possibility or even necessary.

Father set the parents straight: “You have the same responsibility to form these children in the faith that you have for your other children. As they become adults, they are desperately going to need the grace and nourishment of the sacraments to thrive.”


Sometime after that meeting, Nancy summoned the courage to talk with her pastor and request sacramental preparation for Larry to receive his first Communion. Her commitment to Larry’s catechesis led to her service as a catechist and eventually to further her education and earn a PhD. She now serves as director of programs and diocesan relations for National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD).

Nancy shared this story April 11 during the women’s luncheon of the Iowa Knights of Columbus State Convention in Coralville. Her talk focused on the U.S. bishops’ call for inclusion of persons with disabilities. The message left an impression because Nancy, who belongs to St. Mary Parish in Iowa City, shared her personal story.

Larry, the oldest of her four children, has an intellectual disability and fragile medical health. But he’s also a full member of the church. At age 46 he serves as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. “He’s active in the life of the church; he’s a Knight of Columbus,” she told the group.

Twenty percent of all Catholics have a disability and one in three Catholic families has a member with a disability, she said. The breadth of disability expands to include Catholics dealing with disabilities because of aging, accidents, Post-traumatic stress disorder or expectant parents receiving a prenatal diagnosis of a life-threatening condition. Suicide and physician assisted suicide are also issues encompassed within ministry to individuals with disabilities, she added.

Raising awareness in the church about disability issues began in the early 1970s and led to the forerunner of the NCPD. In 1978, the U.S. bishops created a Pastoral Statement on Persons with Disabilities that later served as a resource for the Americans with Disabilities Act, Nancy said.

As a nonprofit, NCPD works with the U.S. bishops to implement the pastoral and subsequent documents that have been written to support inclusion of people with disabilities in the full life of the church.

NCPD is funded through the generosity of affiliated dioceses in the United States, other donors and grants, Nancy added.

Catholics and their parishes need to ACT — affirm, challenge and transform — so that persons with disabilities feel welcome and valued and can be of service to the church themselves.

“The parish is the door to participation for people with disabilities,” Nancy continued. “I challenge you to read that pastoral statement.”

Among the pearls of wisdom in that statement: “When we think of people with disabilities in relation to ministry, we tend automatically to think of doing something for them. We do not reflect that they can do something for us and with us … they have the same duty as all members of the community to do the Lord’s work in the world, according to their God-given talents and capacities” (No. 17).

Excerpts from the statement had been placed at each table setting at the women’s luncheon, along with a list of bullet points about how the National Catholic Partnership on Disability serves Catholics today. Services cover areas such as faith formation initiatives, pro-life efforts, interactive website, councils on mental illness and on intellectual and developmental disabilities, consultation and training.

Nancy asked her audience to go back to their parishes and “start with one — whether it’s one family or one individual in the pew in front of you. Make sure they are welcome; get to know them.”

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