What was supposed to be a blessed time for the family of eight-year-old Anthony LaCugna has turned into upset after they were told their son, who has autism, could not participate in his First Holy Communion in the coming months, his parents told NJ Advance Media Thursday.
Anthony, who is non-verbal, was denied the sacrament by Rev. John Bambrick at the Saint Aloysius Parish in Jackson, said his mother Nicole LaCugna.
The church told the parents on Tuesday that their son could not receive First Holy Communion because his disability prevents him from determining right from wrong, Nicole LaCugna said. The frustrated parents shared their story on Facebook in a post that has since garnered thousands of likes and comments.
“God created everybody. He created my son the way he is for a reason,” Nicole LaCugna said in a phone interview. “(Communion) is supposed to be a blessed day, not a day of not thinking my son doesn’t belong. This is discrimination against my child.”
The church did not immediately respond to NJ Advance Media for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Trenton Diocese, Rayanne Bennett, pointed NJ Advance Media to canon law, which states local pastors are responsible for determining a child’s readiness for communion. The diocese also runs learning centers at six churches throughout Monmouth, Ocean, Burlington and Mercer counties open to children and adults with special needs who need support beyond their local parish.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday, the church said it followed diocese guidelines that say the church can postpone a child’s communion if they do not have a “basic, rudimentary, simple understanding of right and wrong.”
But, the church said it is now exploring new ways to accommodate parishioners with disabilities in the future and adopting different guidelines.
The parish’s complete statement on Facebook:
We have had both e-mail and phone inquiries regarding a Facebook Post about a special needs child. We appreciate the outpouring of concern and love for the child as well as those advocating on behalf of the family, we appreciate those who took the the time to share with us their feelings.
Because the individual is a minor child we are bound by confidentiality not to disclose information regarding this particular individual.
The Code of Canon Law clearly states a Catholic has the Right to the Sacraments and cannot be denied the sacraments as long as they are properly prepared and disposed to reception of the Sacraments. The Parishes have the duty to ensure the individuals are prepared, understand, ready and able to receive the Sacraments. Should an individual not be ready the Sacrament is normally to be postponed until the individual is suitably prepared and disposed to reception of the Sacraments. These are guidelines we operate under in the Parish.
Our parish has dozens of children with special needs, disabilities, autism spectrum, cognitive delay, allergies, developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, limited cognition and other physical, emotional and cognitive classifications. We strive to serve these populations to the best of our abilities and to adapt our Religious Education and Sacramental Preparations for them within the guidelines of the Catholic Church.
Since Monday we have been researching how we could best assist the most profoundly disabled in a better way. New information has come to light which allows us to by-pass previous Diocesan Guidelines to better serve this subset population. The original guidelines we followed state that a child must have a basic rudimentary simple understanding of Right and Wrong to receive First Reconciliation. For First Communion, again at a simple, basic, rudimentary level, the child has to be able to distinguish ordinary bread from the Body of Christ.
New information has shed light on ways to further adapt our preparations and reception for children with severe cognitive and developmental issues. This is thanks to the work of Canon Lawyers, Theologians and Pope Francis which will allow the reception of these sacraments. The basic concept is the child should be presumed to have an inner spiritual relationship with God and this would be sufficient in these particular cases, thus this is a development of our guidelines based on the latest understanding. Bishop David O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton has approved of these further adaptations.
The family many of you have advocated for has been informed of this new guidance that will allow further adaptations to Preparation and reception of the Sacraments.
Thank you again to everyone willing to be an advocate for the disabled and challenge us to a deeper understanding as well.
Years ago, when I was in formation, my pastor was approached by several families who had banded together and were seeking a priest to let their children with autism receive First Communion. Every pastor in the neighborhood had declined to do it. But my pastor said “Yes.” So on a Saturday morning, the parents brought about a dozen children to our church and we had a private First Communion service. I served the Mass. My wife was the lector. At times, it was pandemonium and uncontrolled chaos, as the kids roamed around the sanctuary and the parents tried to keep them in line.
But ultimately, it was one of the most beautiful and exquisite celebrations of the Holy Mass I’ve ever experienced.
That morning, every one of those children received Jesus. Every parent was profoundly grateful, some in tears. I’ll never forget it.
Grace was everywhere.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
The National Catholic Partnership on Disability (ncpd.org) has been helping children who are nonverbal and their families for many years. They have information for clergy on how to help children receive the sacraments. I am a former board member and head of their education committee. I think they might be helpful in the situation you wrote about recently, so if you are not familiar with their work and resources I wanted to share them with you.
I have known many nonverbal children who have made their First Communion.
And there’s this, from the USCCB:
Parents or guardians, together with pastors, are to see to it that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly prepared and are nourished by the Eucharist as early as possible. Pastors are to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom they judge are not sufficiently disposed. It is important to note, however, that the criterion for reception of Holy Communion is the same for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to “distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food,” even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally. Pastors are encouraged to consult with parents, those who take the place of parents, diocesan personnel involved with disability issues, psychologists, religious educators, and other experts in making their judgment. If it is determined that a parishioner who is disabled is not ready to receive the sacrament, great care is to be taken in explaining the reasons for this decision. Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the Catholic to receive the sacrament. The existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving Holy Communion.
UPDATE 2: Father Matthew Schneider, a.k.a., the Autism Priest, has also weighed in.
I hate seeing children denied Communion for their disabilities. I can understand when we postpone first reconciliation, even indefinitely, due to a lack of understanding. However, not all sacraments require cognitive knowledge of what is going on. One should not receive confession, matrimony or holy orders without cognitive knowledge. In confession, for example, our contrition – sorrow for sin and desire not to repeat it – is the quasi-matter of the sacrament. Thus, one needs to have the cognitive ability for contrition to be properly prepared for confession. However, the sacraments of initiation require no cognitive knowledge as they can be given to an infant (as in common in the Eastern Church). This is not to say we should not ask the majority of children to do normal sacramental preparation and confess before Communion, but a recognition that we should not deny it in a case those things are not possible. Let’s pray for this family and all families struggling with similar issues.