I was reminded of this at last Sunday's mass when a contingent from SPRED*, a diocesan organisation supporting this cohort of the population were involved actively in the service.
This notion of participation was what led to the formation of the organisation in the first place.
I became aware of SPRED as a new principal of one of the (then) three special schools in Toowoomba, late in the last century.
One Monday morning my secretary told me that she had the Catholic Bishop of Toowoomba diocese on the phone. I had been the principal of five schools by this time, in various parts of the state, and this was the first time I had been phoned by a bishop.
It turned out that he was aware that many children with disabilities often weren’t able to go through the routine sacramental preparation that was a vital part of Catholic practice, and was looking for ways of including them.
He had thoroughly sensible ideas, some involving cooperation with my school, and I remember telling him we’d help where we could. The fact that I was a Catholic was neither here nor here.
To cut a long story short, the idea morphed into a preparation programme that was implemented during religious instruction sessions at school, as well as with the parents at home. The parents of the participating children took turns in opening their homes to the parishioners who were offering the instruction, much in the same way as it worked for able-bodied children.
It was a resounding success, but wasn’t without its moments. The bishop decided he’d have a dress rehearsal, which was fortunate, as when one of the children, a girl from the Phillipines with an intellectual impairment, first saw him in full regalia, she ran screaming from the church. She was quite unprepared for the mitre.
This programme became annual, and was still successfully progressing when I retired in 2005.
This same bishop got himself on the wrong side of the Vatican a few years later, and the rest is history.
His ideas about inclusion and compassion were probably a little ahead of their time, faced with the clericalism that was a feature of the Australian church at the height of the stewardship of George Pell.
*SPecial Religious Education & Development