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Active Participants: Those With Down Syndrome Are Vital Members of the Church and Should Be Fully Welcomed

By Joseph Pronechen/National Catholic Register

World Down Syndrome Day on March 21 celebrates people who have an extra partial or whole copy of Chromosome 21. People with Down syndrome, made in the image and likeness of God, just like everyone else, can and should be active members of the Church.

Mark Bradford and his family have known that all along. He and his wife, Denise, have a 21-year-old son, Thomas, who lives with Down syndrome. Thomas is an altar server for both the Novus Ordo and Latin Masses at their parish.

Bradford, the founding president of the Jerome Lejeune Foundation in the United States, has also been elected to be the Venerable Jerome Lejeune Fellow for the Word on Fire Institute. A major goal is “to create and develop evangelization and catechetical resources, materials, and opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Bradford knows the mission firsthand.

He shared his family’s experiences with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen during a conversation they had March 20.

You’ve written that we have to treat those living with developmental and intellectual disabilities “as equal members of our parish communities … improve our understanding of the unique gifts they bring, and enable them to grow more fully in faith and into the intimate communion of love that Christ wills for us all.” How have you and your wife, Denise, done that and continue to do that?

We’re blessed to be in a wonderful parish. First of all, when Thomas was born, we moved away from the Philadelphia area and were in the Pittsburgh area for about three or four years. We had him with us everywhere we would go, always. When we moved back to Philadelphia, we moved into an area that is close to a beautiful parish called Our Lady of Lourdes and the Overbrook Farm section of Philadelphia. So Thomas really grew up there. We have a very close parish community and have a wonderful pastor who was very welcoming to Thomas.

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How did he welcome your son?

When it was around first Holy Communion time, Father James Mayer [the previous pastor] came to us and said, “You know, I see Thomas every time you come to receive Holy Communion, and I see the longing in his eyes, and I think it’s time.” He’s the one that really initiated the process of preparing Thomas, and he received his first Holy Communion. So Thomas has always been welcomed and loved in our community: a friendly, wonderful group of people.

When he was old enough, he decided he wanted to serve Mass. The pastor let him be an altar boy, and he participated along with everyone else and just serves at Mass beautifully. We have both the traditional Latin Mass and the new rites at our parish, and he does both equally well and capably.

And he’s involved with collecting. He loves doing that job. People know him and welcome him. He makes his rounds. He’s always going around and talking with everyone. He knows everyone. He’s very friendly and outgoing, and he’s loved and honored at the parish, just as he is in our family. So we’ve had a great situation for many years.

You learn a lot as a parent with a child with disabilities. They know us, and we know everyone else. It’s just fine. So we haven’t had some of the issues that other families have had to deal with in that regard. It’s just been a continual process of Thomas becoming more and more aware of his own relationship with God.

What might be a way or ways you see that happening?

We can see him when he’s serving Mass. After Communion, he’s kneeling there on the step in the sanctuary, and bowed deep and in prayer, presenting his gratitude and his thanksgiving for what he’s received. He’s very much aware of what’s going on.

And he’s now a godfather. Our oldest daughter had another baby and in July, invited him to be the godfather. So we went down to Dallas for the christening of our new grandchild, Jane, and Thomas was there, thrilled to death, being a godfather to his little niece Jane. And from time to time, we’ll do one of these nine hours [novenas]. Thomas sets a timer on his phone, and he disappears and goes off and prays a novena for her every hour or throughout the day.

He’s a beautiful person. And when you have a child with a disability, you see that beautiful simplicity and acceptance. There’s no question of whether things are real or not; you know, there’s a particular gift, I think, just being a part of the life of someone with a disability on that level, where you see a more pure version of life before you every day. Not that it’s easy, not that it’s simple enough, that it’s not without its conflicts, or its challenges; but it’s just life at a different level. That opens your eyes really to the beauty of humanity with it’s wonderful diversity.

At home, do you and your wife and Thomas pray together as a family?

Yes. He prays the Rosary with us. And he has a book on the Rosary and loves to read. There’s a little meditation for each of the mysteries, and he loves to read that. So if we have a ton of extra time, because it takes some time to get through it, we’ll do that sometimes. We’ll pass it around, and each one of us will read.

Is there any particular way in church that you’ve seen some people who have really been influenced by watching Thomas and change their attitude about people with disabilities?

Well, he brightens everywhere. I don’t know of anyone whose life is changed. But he’s, as I said, very friendly and outgoing. And there is no stranger to him. He’ll walk up to anyone and hold out his hand and shake their hand. And then everyone becomes his best friend, so he’s very open. He loves everyone. Everyone knows him. People often will comment on how beautifully he serves Mass.

Can you share anything at the moment about the prayer-book project for the people with disabilities that you’re planning?

People tend to view the disability community as fairly uniform. It’s not. There’s a huge variety of abilities within the area of disability. This will be a printable for adults. They’re very visually driven, typically, and some are nonverbal. Some don’t read. Some do read, like our son. But I’m trying right now to find the best approach [to covering all areas and all people with disabilities]. … It’s a project in the works.

How does your family figure in to what you’re going to do in that and being a fellow at Word on Fire?

Thomas wants to be involved however he can be involved. We’ll see what that is. And he’s sort of my test case, in the sense I’ve become much more observant of him. When you get used to living with a person with a disability, they’re just like everyone else in the house. You really don’t look as analytically as you would otherwise.

Down syndrome gives you a great opportunity to see where the needs are. I was just talking with my wife about that this morning. For example, the sacrament of confession. What’s an individual with disabilities’ obligation? What is their culpability for sin? How much do they understand? [He goes quite in-depth about this sacrament.]

Are you working on how people should begin to think about the spiritual life for a person with Down syndrome?

What we’re doing, in providing resources for individuals with disabilities within churches, is trying to help families understand that there’s a soul at work there. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that they’re excluded from participating in some way in the life of the Church and growing themselves in virtue in some way. They’re called like the rest of us are. God loves them. They have as much dignity as any one of us. And how has that dignity been realized in their life? How is God working within their life?

There have been some amazing stories of individuals with disabilities … some pretty incredible relationships with God going on and some pretty astounding, mystical experiences that have occurred out of some individuals with disabilities.

Considering the world today, how can we best support individuals with disabilities as they navigate social life?

There are lots of questions that people [have in this regard], and the culture is speaking too loudly on these things. And it’s speaking outside of what Catholics can accept. So we have to be careful. Families have to be careful when they have children with disabilities, that they don’t allow them to get entangled in a culture where it’s just presumed that they’re going to have sexual relationships, for example. So we’re going to be doing a lot of that, hopefully, with this fellowship, as well: really plunging into some of these difficult questions and trying to come to some better understanding and at least encourage people themselves to question and to pray about these things and to think a lot more deeply than I think we have in the past.

You said one of the two big pillars of the foundation is continuing pro-life work as it relates to those with disabilities. What is the other?

The other is just finding a better place for individuals with disabilities within a church and finding the best way to do that. How can we help pastors understand how they can make their parishes more welcoming to individuals with disabilities?

There are too many stories of individuals who are left at home and are not brought to Mass because their families think that they’ll be distracting. Or, in some cases, the parents themselves don’t come because they have to stay home with their child with a disability. They don’t feel they can come because it’ll be disruptive.

So how do we work through those things in parishes? How do we help people understand that welcoming is not pity: Welcoming is bringing individuals with disabilities and embracing them as a brother and sister in Christ with whatever disability that they have and accepting that as who they are — just like what happens with my son.

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