Catechetical Instruction for the Mentally Disabled
Different from Others?
We consider ourselves to be normal, and mentally disabled people abnormal. But it is we, the “normal,” who behave differently as soon as we come face to face with the mentally handicapped. We do not know how to act. We start to do stupid things: we don’t look right at them, or we pay excessive attention to them. Sometimes we do this to get rid of a sense of unease. But mentally handicapped people really appreciate being treated as ordinary people.
Lydia* had a great evening when they went out to eat. The waiter, who perceived right away that she had Down’s syndrome, acted in an ordinary way as he asked her as well, “And what will it be for you, Miss?” She enjoyed this, even more than she enjoyed the food!
Of course, we are generalizing. Maybe you do not feel addressed? Congratulations! May there be a steady increase in the number of people to be congratulated!
It is precisely in the church that we will completely accept mentally handicapped people as full-fledged brothers and sisters. When God the Holy Spirit wants to live and work in them, who are we to then hold them back?
They too are included in 1 Corinthians 12:27, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” To them is no less applicable what precedes this in verse 18: “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”
And what do you think of verse 22, “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable”? These are the starting points of faith, which steer in the right track our thinking and actions with regard to mentally handicapped people. This applies, for example, to the following:
The consistory of the church is responsible for the catechetical instruction. They see to it that the youth of the congregation visit catechism classes from a predetermined age (often around twelve years old).
Jeremy* is intellectually disabled. He too is twelve years old. His name shows up on the computer database along with the other twelve-year-olds. Or, the attentive district elder reports this at the church council meeting. Then Jeremy’s parents are also contacted. It may well be that catechizing does not start right away; Jeremy must first be a few years older. But as consistory this should not be tacitly assumed, without talking to Jeremy and his parents. And establish in consultation with each other that Catechism classes will not start right away for Jeremy.
In the discussion with Jeremy and his parents, be serious about the “right” to receive catechism as twelve-year-olds (and older), and with the duty to follow catechism instruction. Consistories definitely have a task in this respect.
Do not say too quickly that catechizing Jeremy is impossible or that it does not make sense. That can happen, but that should not be a rule. The rule should be: catechizing indeed, although in an adapted format, just as all catechizing is adapted to the limitations, possibilities, ages, and living environment of the catechism students.
The Catechetical Instruction
And now about the catechizing itself for the mentally handicapped.
Why? Because they are baptized, and they too have to realize as much as possible what this means.
For what purpose? To lead them to the second sacrament, the celebration of the Holy Supper.
Is that even feasible? The Bible states as a condition, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28). For the practical design and elaboration, see the relevant article of the church order (Article 61). Self-examination means that you need to know what you are doing when you eat the bread and drink the wine. When a mentally handicapped person at his or her level understands this and has an idea of what this implies (this is at the discretion of the church council), and he or she has come to a certain point in Catechism instruction, then the primary goal of all catechizing has been achieved. The condition of 1 Corinthians 11:28 may not be tampered with! No admission to the sacrament based on sentimental considerations.
What about if it does not come to this? Someone might be inclined to say, “Then you may have to expect catechism instruction for years.” Indeed, that is possible and true. And there is nothing against this. Maybe in the long run you will call it something else. That’s fine. But it is a good thing to keep busy with involving the mentally handicapped in God’s Word, and involving them in the going to church and all the church events.
Practice of Catechesis
For the actual practice of catechesis, the following points are important. We list these without claiming to be exhaustive.
You must know these catechism students well. Know their world environment. Understand their language, their way of expressions (some of them are quick to give a hug). How else can you speak their language if you don’t understand them? How else do you find starting points that are necessary for catechetical instruction? Invest time in getting properly acquainted. That will only profit both.
The material to be treated must be dealt with in short periods of time. Assume a short attention span, a limited ability in concentration. Sometimes ten minutes is even (too) long. With the setup and organization (do they ever like to sing!) you will be busy for a while. But the essence of the lesson must be short and clear.
The instructor must therefore limit his curriculum consciously. See to it that one learning outcome becomes very clear rather than have two or more things go up in smoke. Does this not enable a kind of “bare-bones gospel”? No. Work according to the rule: do not reduce, but focus on the core.
Next: be concrete. Make things visible, expressive, practical. You read question and answer 57 of the Heidelberg Catechism to Jeremy* and he looks totally stunned. But you’re wrong to think that Jeremy doesn’t know anything about it. Because on the anniversary date of the death of his mother it is Jeremy who wants to send a note of congratulations to heaven. Does he ever know it! If you don’t notice these kind of things, how can you evaluate whether Jeremy can make profession of his faith? Work according to the rule: don’t allow matters to be treated in an abstract way, but make things concrete. Or, to put it another way, we do not have to be performance-oriented, but experience-oriented.
Support the lesson with visual material.
Ensure a quiet and familiar environment for the catechism instruction. This way the catechism student can feel at ease. It stimulates his or her self-confidence and positively influences the learning opportunities.
All formality on the part of the instructor will have a negative effect and create distance. Be normal, be “real.” When a pastor has to say in all honesty, “I can’t do this work,” then the church council would be wise to look for suitable church members able to take this task upon themselves.
Not all church language can or should be avoided. Think of the recognition in and the connection with the Sunday worship service.
This also applies to psalms and hymns. What a feast it is for them when in church people sing what they learned that week (or month)! It is a feast of recognition and being able to participate, of realizing they belong as well!
This can also be achieved and promoted when the catechism instruction keeps pace with the Sunday catechism preaching and there are points of recognition in the sermon! A targeted reading schedule can be an important support tool in this process and can help to create points of recognition, if this timetable fits in with the catechism material and anticipates it (when it pertains to the Heidelberg Catechism) in the upcoming church service. For instance, the following reading schedule:
1 Timothy 2:1, 2
Let’s explore prayers a bit more: do you now understand it a little more when so often in church there are prayers for the queen, the mayor, and the police?
Does this strike you as something you’ve heard before? Do you understand it somewhat?
* Names have been fictionalized
This article was translated by Wim Kanis.