Shepherd's Flock: Faith formation for children with special needs

April is Autism Awareness Month, and over the last 10 years, Holy Trinity Church in Washington, D.C. has established the Shepherd’s Flock ministry in response to the growing needs of families who request religious education for children with special needs. The request was prompted by parents’ deep desires to see their children participate fully in the life of the Church, including the traditions of faith and the celebration of Eucharist and Confirmation. Shepherd’s Flock Ministry offers faith formation and sacramental preparation for these individuals.

As the ministry grew and as parents and parish staff discerned more fully the particular needs of these families, they worked together to create an intergenerational ministry that serves children and their families. The “special needs” catechesis, called the Atrium model, was developed by parents and catechists over the course of several years and is based on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd that is part of the Montessori method of faith formation for children.

Since Holy Trinity’s Shepherd’s Flock Ministry began, the number of families in the special needs community has more than doubled, and now includes four dedicated lead catechists who are all trained in the Montessori Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Dr. Linda Campanelli serves as founding member of the Shepherd’s Flock Ministry and the Atrium program. As she pointed out, group trainings have allowed Shepherd’s Flock catechists to share their experiences and provide crucial support for one another.

Children prepare for First Communion and Confirmation through Shepherd’s Flock, and receive the sacraments as they are capable and when they are ready.

Shepherd’s Flock monthly liturgies, held on Saturday afternoons, are joyful times for families who are part of this community. Judith Brusseau, the pastoral associate for faith formation and religious education, said, “The joy of the children and their families as we celebrate always touches me deeply. Children, who might otherwise not be invited to serve as a lector, cantor or minister of hospitality, shine as they serve the community.”

The closing hymn, “We are Dancing,” is always the same, and is marked by children with special needs and their families weaving their way around Holy Trinity’s St. Ignatius Chapel.

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