Two years ago, I was invited by the staff of the Al Jia Development Center to help prepare two students to receive the Sacrament of Baptism. Although they also have baptism preparation in the parish, I accepted the invitation without hesitation, knowing that it would be both a challenging and an interesting journey.
This would be my first time, and I would do it in Mandarin. It would be very special because my students were a mother and daughter with mental disabilities. The daughter is very smart and able to learn, as is the mother, however the mother can only understand Taiwanese language. Even then, I was eager to give it a try, trusting in the Holy Spirit to empower me with wisdom and knowledge to make it through. I only needed to trust myself and ask the God of my journey to grant me the graces that I needed most in responding to this call.
We started our class by reading Gospel stories about baptism, with instruction on the Catholic faith, and later on studied the basic Catholic prayers. We used different methods such as artworks, watching Gospel video clips, singing songs, reading and writing. Every week we had a one-hour catechism class but before that I needed enough time to prepare my lesson plans. I would humbly ask my Mandarin teacher for help so that the Mandarin language I used would be simple and humble.
Our weekly catechism classes went well. My students participated well and showed their eagerness to learn about the Catholic faith. Most of the time I asked my younger student to translate for her mom what we were talking about, and she did it well. It was a big help for me. For my part, I needed patience and gentleness in dealing with them. I gave them an assignment to pray every day, especially when they woke up in the morning and before going to sleep. In addition, the daughter had her own daily routine of reading the Gospel of the day and writing it in her notebook which she had been doing even before we had our catechism classes. Obviously, she knew a lot about the Gospel stories. I remember that many times I asked them if they really wanted to be baptized as Catholics and they kept on answering yes. The preparation took six months, and they never gave up. That inspired me also to keep going.
During Christmas 2020, they finally received the Sacrament of Baptism and were joyfully welcomed into the Catholic parish community. I felt very happy and fulfilled seeing them baptized and accepted by the Catholic community. I was touched when they responded to the priest “Amen” with a firm voice during the baptismal ceremony. This made me realize how mysterious the works of the Holy Spirit were within the three of us during our spiritual journey together.
After the Mass, they happily showed me the necklace with a cross that they wore, a baptism gift they received. I saw a profound joy in their eyes that they had received the sacrament, the sense of belongingness in the one Catholic community of faith. There was a big celebration afterwards in our community Al Jia Development Center where some of their classmates, teachers and staff members who witnessed their baptismal ceremony stayed up until late at night. I remember the daughter received a special gift when she answered the questions about the Gospel during the Mass. That made me so proud of her. Indeed, it was a merry and memorable Christmas for us all.
Pope Francis in his message for persons with disabilities during the 2020 International Day of Celebration for Persons with Disabilities said: “I strongly reaffirm the right of persons with disabilities to receive the sacraments, like all other members of the Church. All liturgical celebrations in the parish should be accessible to them, so that, together with their brothers and sisters, each of them can deepen, celebrate, and live their faith. Special attention should be paid to people with disabilities who have not yet received the sacraments of Christian initiation: they should be welcomed and included in programs of catechesis in preparation for these sacraments. No one should be excluded from the grace of these sacraments.”
Both of my students attended Sunday Mass until the covid 19 pandemic surged in Taiwan and there was a need to observe restrictions. We were fortunate enough that our catechism class continued. We also studied altar serving, which led us to help as altar servers during the regular Masses of the Center. We also finished studying the basic Catholic prayers, the rosary, and every Thursday afternoon the younger student led our regular rosary prayer. I was amazed at how they offered prayers for their family, friends, classmates and their families, the teachers and staff of the center, the concerns of the community, and other intentions. I observed how much their prayers were sincere, focused, pure and from the heart. I remember Pope Francis said in his message during 2021 International Day for Persons with Disabilities “Prayer is a mission, a mission accessible to everyone, and I would like to entrust that mission in a particular way to you.”
My simple yes to the invitation led me to become a catechist for persons with disabilities, and it became a great privilege and source of blessings that I received in my missionary life. It has been a one-of-a-kind experience of how God works with me and my students in our spiritual journey. It broadened my understanding of my own baptismal call to be a missionary in the way God wanted me to be, to fully participate in His plan. My experience made me realize that spiritual care is the most important part in this life’s journey. Yes, I felt contentment doing my ministry with those who are mentally and physically challenged, to be of help in giving care for our brethren in need of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being, the greatest care of all.
Lastly, with a joyful heart I am grateful to the Center’s director and her assistant for being God’s messenger who believed in my capacity to accompany our students in their spiritual journey. Together we live our Catholic faith and mission.
Columban lay missionary Febie Gonzales lives and works in Taiwan.