Matushka Wendy Cwiklinski has Bachelor’s degree in Instrumental Music Education from Northeast Louisiana University. She studied at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and recently graduated from Fordham University with a M.A. in Religious Education, with an emphasis in Youth and Young Adult Ministry. She is married to Fr. Jerome Cwiklinski, who recently retired from serving as a Navy Chaplain. They are the proud parents of 5 children, who have explored the country during their military moves, living in California, Chicago, Washington DC, Alaska, and Rhode Island. Their last move to Southern California has lasted for 15 years!
As the parent of special needs children, church was often a challenge for us. While most of our time was spent serving smaller military chapels, a trip to a parish usually promised to be stressful – as my husband was serving in the altar and there were 5 children to tend to. With children on the autism spectrum, sometimes they were just in perpetual motion – much to the dismay of some parishioners around us.
The following is a serialized version of a paper I wrote for my M.A. in Religious Education at Fordham University: Embracing All God’s Children: Orthodox Theology Concerning Disability and Its Implications for Ministry with Special Needs Youth in the Orthodox Church. The full paper can be found online: www.fordham.academia.edu/WendyCwiklinski
Part 5: Pastoral concerns
Consider these recent headlines:
- In May 2008, a parish in Minnesota had a restraining order issued against the parents of a severely autistic 13-year-old boy in an effort to keep him from attending their church on Sundays. The church petitioned for the restraining order “as a last resort out of a growing concern for the safety of parishioners and other community members due to disruptive and violent behavior on the part of that child.” The mother responded that the priest… “Said that we did not discipline our son. He said that our son was physically out of control and a danger to everyone at church. I can’t discipline him out of his autism, and I think that’s what our priest is expecting.”
- On December 12, 2012, 20 year old Adam Lanza shocked his community – and the nation – when he entered an elementary school in Connecticut, shooting and killing 20 children and adults before he shot and killed himself. When the police went to his home, it was discovered that he had shot and killed his own mother before he went to the school. Afterwards it was revealed that Adam had been identified with Asperger’s syndrome, a neurological disorder on the Autism Spectrum. Characterized as a “loner”, Adam had difficulty in school and reportedly spent much of his time in the basement of the house he shared with his mother on the computer or playing video games. Adam and his mother belonged to the local Catholic parish, but not much has been written concerning their involvement there.
Both of these cases are indicative of the isolation, either self-imposed or imposed by the Church. Isolation does not come without consequence. If it becomes impossible for even the family to come, unofficial ex-communication results. In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul exhorts that community to consider this:
But now indeed there are many members yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our presentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (Romans 12.20-26)
In one of his homilies on St. Matthew, St. John Chrysostom says that, in order to please God, we should be supportive of our neighbor, in whom we see Jesus Christ. He concludes that: “The one who will love his neighbor for Me, will have Me with him and I will take care that he get other necessary virtues.”
Attitude of “Choice” and its consequence on affected families
A rabbi wrote in an essay published on internet site Huffington Post, reflecting on the question of “Why does God allow people to be born with disabilities?” Here is a portion of his answer:
I have no idea why G-d would allow any child to come into this world with severe mental or physical disability. What I do know, however, is that He shouldn’t. Children deserve to be born with all their faculties and with all their abilities. All children deserve to be healthy. Those who come into the world with mental handicaps are, of course, beautiful children, the equal of every healthy child, deserving of infinite love, equality and rights. Indeed, given their special needs they require more of our love, more of our attention. What they do not deserve, however, and what they certainly have never earned, is our contemptuous effort to justify their suffering and their challenges by ascribing them to some unknown and lofty divine purpose.
This is representative of the attitude that has invaded our society. As mentioned earlier, historically the disabled have been seen as weak and dispensable to society – or as a detriment. It took Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza over a year after the tragedy in Newton, CT to grant an interview. He declared to the reporter that he “wished Adam had never been born, that there could be no remembering who he was outside of who he became” Perhaps the best response to his statement was written in an article by Courtney Reissig: “Even in their worst days as human beings, our children bear God’s image. Marred as it might be by sin, they are image bearers for eternity. So was Adam Lanza, and that is what makes his life matter.”
Also relevant here is the modern availability of diagnostic testing for the fetus that predict the possibility of a disability. It is estimated that between 60 – 90% of women who receive a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis end the pregnancy. In his book The Sacred Gift of Life, Fr. John Breck gives us the pastoral imperative for the Church: “Today, as fully as in Byzantine times, the Church must act as the conscience of society, through evangelization and moral persuasion.” One would hope that in an atmosphere of love and acceptance would prevail, that the “decision” pressed upon the parents whose unborn child might be imperfect would be to continue their participation in creation by bringing the child into the world. As Christians, it is our imperative to make statements like this end differently:
The imago Dei does not shine out from our relationships. This is noticeably accentuated for people with disabilities, as social powers and systems brand disability a stigma or taboo, a human deficiency, and foster barriers to access. Despite being loved into being by God, people with disabilities are excluded or trivialized as social nonentities in ways that mar their sense of being created in the image of God.
Instead, it should read “because they are loved by God, people with disabilities are included, because they are created in the image of God!
At the beginning of this paper, four stories were presented as examples of real challenges that children and their families face. How did they resolve?
- The parents had a discussion with the priest, Fr. Stephan, who suggested that the parents help by talking with the teacher. They would discuss possible accommodations in the Sunday School classroom, using those that were in place in Christine’s school classroom. Stephan also suggested that the Sunday School teachers should have some training in making accommodations. After summer break, Christine got a new Church school teacher, Mrs. Warmopolos, who was a special education teacher. Mrs. W helped Christine with the transitions to and from the classroom, and it was a great year!
Because all children bring multiple learning styles to the classroom, one theory of education worth exploring in the training of Religious Educators is considering the integration of Dr. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory into religious education. This theory is beautifully outlined by Stefania Gianulis in her article Multiply Blessed: Fully Alive.
- Macrina’s mom came to pick her up at the end of camp. The counselor met the mom and told her that it had been a difficult week, even with the suggested accommodations. The counselor said that “Camp probably isn’t the place for her.” Macrina ran eagerly to see her mom and gave her a big hug. She took her hand and asked her to come with her to meet her “friends!” Despite the comments from the counselor, Macrina’s mom was thrilled to hear this – Macrina had very few friends her age at home.
- Despite the attempts of Alex’s parents to discuss the situation with the priest and the leader of the youth group, they were told that “that’s just the way it is”. Alex started attending youth activities at the West Coast Church, a mega-church down the road from his house.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke both contain the parable of the lost sheep (Matthew 18.10-14, Luke 15.3-7). In this parable, the mandate is clear, that the lost sheep must be sought after, “And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.” (Matt 18.13) Have youth events a social club for the benefit of the most popular kids, or are they inclusive of the “poor in spirit”?
- It was a mixed weekend for Kathy. She enjoyed being with kids her own age, but felt insecure when she heard their accomplishments in school compared to her own. She knew only a few of the other kids that were there, but did not know them well. Most of them also seemed to know each other, and no one invited her to join their group at mealtimes or for group activities. It was a long ride home with two of the girls she barely knew. Kathy was glad to get home to her own room and peace and quiet.
How could this have been different? Should the leaders of the retreat have been informed of Kathy’s issues? Disclosure of any diagnosis requires trust, something that may be difficult with people that are either strangers or are not known well. If retreat leaders had been observant, they would have seen that Kathy was having trouble fitting in, and could have helped ease the situation. Sometimes finding an empathetic “buddy” who can help navigate a shy attendee into a comfortable place in the group.
Both the Greek Archdiocese and the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America agree that, in order to transform themselves and the world around them, youth need to experience the transforming power of their faith through Worship (Liturgia), Service (Diakonia), Fellowship (Koinonia) and Witness (Martyria). The mission of those who minister to the youth is clear:
Our aim is not to help the people around us find a more fulfilling life; it is not to help them discover better worship; it is not to help them locate and become part of a more satisfying community. Our mission is to help them find the Kingdom of God, to overcome their sin by His power, to be transformed into the life of His blessedness.
The Church is meant to encompass God’s entire created order as the steward of His oikonomeia. Even as today the Ecumenical Patriarch issues “green encyclicals” on proper care of the physical planet, the human person must be valued above all, even higher than the angels, because we alone were made to share His image and likeness, and we share our humanity with the eternal Word of God. Jesus Christ shares our humanity, rendered imperfect by the Fall of Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, the standard of God’s oikonemeia is the summons to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect. What does that perfection entail? It does not meet any standard of worldly or material success, no IQ level or accountability for all of one appendages or faculties, but an embrace of God’s Will. God creates to glory in His creation. Creation is the expression of God’s love. It is God’s nature to create and we share in His creative abilities when we procreate children. At a baptism we sing “As many have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ!” After spending 40 days in the desert, Christ returned to his hometown of Nazareth. On the Sabbath, he went to the Synagogue, stood up and read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed,
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord
Here Christ has outlined the vision of His ministry. In the Gospel of Matthew, he warns us that “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matt 18.6) These are strong words from our Lord, but ones that we as members of the Body of Christ must heed. Our imperative is to care for all of God’s children in a loving and inclusive manner, in order to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord?
O Lord Jesus Christ our God, who didst dwell in the hearts of the Twelve Apostles, and Who, by the power of grace of Thine All Holy Spirit, didst descend in the form of fiery tongues and didst open their lips so that they began to speak in other tongues. This same Lord Jesus Christ our God: Do Thou send down Thy Holy Spirit on Thy children and plant in their hearts the Holy Scriptures which Thou, by Thy most pure hand, didst inscribe on tablets and give to the Lawgiver Moses, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
(Prayer for Children who have Difficulty Learning, Akathist to the Mother of God “Nurturer of Children”) 
 (ABC News)
 (Pereira 107)
 (Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life 201)
 (Reynolds 188)
 (Again and again in peace)
 Appendix G
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