Thursday, May 31, 2001

Wrong for rites

Last night, I went to a meeting at our church to register my son for First Communion. I did it with trepidation, because I was sure the religious education director would spy me from the front of the room, reach out with an enormous cane, and yank me outta there. "You? What are you doing here? What makes you think your noisy, jumpy little boy could be eligible for First Communion? He can't be in church for five minutes without screaming! He'll ruin it for everybody!"

Let's just say I'm feeling a little defensive about my son just now. He's been getting sad faces on his behavior chart at school, the special-needs summer camp he's gone to for two years is sounding a bit testy about dealing with his behavioral issues, and with summer religious education classes coming up, I know I'm going to be debating with the director about just how inclusive their inclusion of my little special-needs kid is going to be.

Plus, have I mentioned his behavior in church? It's hugely, hugely better than it used to be. But it's still awful.

My worrying, at least about last night, turned out to be for nothing. There were no enormous canes in evidence. My son's name was on the list of prospective communicants, just like everybody else's. If the director and her assistant thought, "Omigosh, not HIM!", they did not say it to my face. For one evening, at least, he was just another boy.

Which leaves for me, apparently, the job of discerning if he's really ready. And raises the uncomfortable possibility that the people responsible for turning him away from this spiritual rite of passage may be his very own mom and dad. It's so much easier when administrators do that sort of thing; it's so much easier to be a righteously indignant mother bear. I'm really good at that.

But not so good in examining my son's spiritual side. I'm not sure he has one. He may be able to cognitively grasp the facts associated with the Eucharist, but can he understand the significance and the solemnity of the act? Can he be trusted not to, say, taste the Host and then spit it out if he doesn't like it? Can he have any understanding of what taking the Host means, beyond just putting a wafer in your mouth? I have my doubts that most seven-year-olds can, but they will eventually; will my neurologically impaired guy ever?

Then there's the issue of First Reconciliation, which in less enlightened days we called confession, and penance. We are to prepare our children for this by discussing the things they do wrong and talking about the need to confess our sins and ask forgiveness. I don't even know how to consider the notion of sin with my son, who is impulsive not out of sinfulness but because of prenatal brain damage, and doesn't have a clue why he does what he does. All the reading I've done lately on fetal alcohol damage suggests that the worst thing you can do is make the child feel like he's "bad." I don't think the church is interested in doing that anymore, either, but you can't talk about sin without at least tiptoing in that direction. The religious education director indicated that, if a child is not ready for First Reconciliation, he can delay it for a couple of years and still make First Communion. Maybe we could delay it indefinitely? At this point, we suspect that our son would go into the confessional, ask the priest what kind of car he drives, and request to see his car keys.

In a way, it seems silly to be worrying about my boy's religious development when there are so many basic developmental issues in fret-worthy condition. It must seem silly to any readers out there for whom religion is not important. It is important to our family, and finding a way to help my son participate fully in the life of the church is an ongoing challenge. If anyone else out there is meeting that challenge with a special-needs child, drop me a note. Maybe God will grant us a little inspiration.

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