Carrying the cross with joy – Fifth-grade altar server with Down syndrome relishes his role

Ethan Bratland readies to serve at Mass.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

NEWTON — Fifth-grader Ethan Bratland looks up to his older brothers, Drew and Collin, and wants to do all the same things they do and that includes being an altar server. His brothers, parents, pastor and faith formation mentor make it possible for the 11-year-old with Down syndrome to fulfill his dream. He is now a cross bearer, carrying the processional cross with enthusiasm and awe in Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

This past fall, Ethan’s brothers were serving at Mass and Ethan insisted on serving with them, Miranda Bratland, the boys’ mother, said. Their pastor, Father Marty Goetz, said, “Let him do it.” Miranda asked, “Father, are you sure you want to do this?” Yes, he said, and let her accompany Ethan in the procession and sit beside him in the sanctuary.

Amy Doerring Photography
A poster with a picture of Ethan as an infant in a pro-life campaign facilitated by Gigi’s Playhouse.

“I don’t think it was a matter of me inviting him but rather seeing his enthusiasm and wanting to share his gifts at the altar that struck me,” Father Marty told The Catholic Messenger. “He wanted to be there with his brothers who are very good altar servers and I had confidence that he would be very good as well. It just so happened that there was a family visiting Newton that weekend that has a daughter in the same situation and she isn’t allowed to serve. I want to give everyone a chance to serve God in their way.”


Few accommodations are necessary, Father Marty said. “His mom helps him up the step into the sanctuary and is with him as are his brothers. If anything, it has made me think that we should have a ramp on one side of the sanctuary to make it more accessible to others.”

“Ethan looks forward to being an altar server,” Miranda said. “He wants to do everything his brothers do. He looks up to them so much. They are everything to him. … People love seeing Ethan be able to do that. It makes me feel good to see the love and acceptance in our parish.”

Ethan’s journey to become an altar server began in first grade. Miranda, a special-education teacher, and her husband, Jered, wanted their son to participate in faith formation classes to prepare to receive first Communion in second grade and knew he would need assistance. They asked Luke Gregory, the parish’s director of lifelong faith formation, about the possibility. He asked parishioner Carol Price, a retired educator with expertise in special education if she would consider volunteering one-on-one with Ethan in faith formation class.

“I knew the commitment wouldn’t be just until he made his first Communion. I knew that it would be a lifelong commitment because there is more than one sacrament,” said Carol, who prayed about her decision. She wanted to be sure that she could honor this commitment along with her other professional and spiritual commitments before saying yes.

Her experience mentoring young teachers proved to be a godsend for Ethan and his family, the other students and the catechists as Ethan progressed from one grade to the next with his peers. Carol knew her commitment would encompass all who journeyed with Ethan in faith formation. She enjoys working with the catechists and the students. “I’ve grown to love all the kids in the class.”

The Bratland family members are, from left: Jered, Drew, Miranda, Collin, Ethan; and in front, Emma.

The summer before Ethan made his first Communion, “we needed to work on making sure that he shows respect for (the sacrament),” Carol said. She and Miranda planned strategy together. One example of their success was that Ethan “could point to the tabernacle when we asked, ‘Where is Jesus?’” Carol said. Later, “To see him make his first Communion was so rewarding. I felt blessed I had the opportunity to be a small piece of this great achievement for him.”

“People have been so great about making sure he has access to the sacraments the same way other people do,” Miranda said, “even if we have to go about it differently.” Carol, she said, has been a great advocate for Ethan.

Ethan serves as a cross bearer about once a month, with his mom or brothers beside him. With practice and repetition, he will master cross bearer duties and the other responsibilities of an altar server, Carol said. “Sometimes Ethan gets a little antsy, and Father just goes with the flow.”

When Miranda was pregnant with Ethan, a prenatal specialist talked about the possibility of terminating the pregnancy because of the chance that her son might be born with Down syndrome. She told him that under no circumstances would she consider ending her pregnancy. He asked her, ‘“Are you sure you are ready to raise a child with a disability?’ I said to him, ‘No, but I’m counting on God for that.’”

Miranda and Jered are grateful for the gift of Ethan in their family’s life and for their parish’s appreciation of Ethan’s gifts to the faith community. Waiting in the wings is their youngest child, 6-year-old Emma, who also yearns to be an altar server, just like her big brothers.

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