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Beginning Parish Inclusion


When I first got my son’s autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, I felt overwhelmed – “where do I start?! Do I learn more about what autism is? Do I learn more about the treatment options, first?” It felt like everything was critical to know yesterday, which is absolutely overwhelming.

There can be a bit of a similar feeling when it comes to beginning the ecclesial integration process. How do we start?

The fantastic news is that the US Catholic Bishops have a framework we can work with for the integration of the special needs community in any and every parish.

The US Bishops researched and surveyed parishes around the country that were modeling effective integration of two or more cultures, called shared parishes. They focused on racial or ethnic cultural integration, but culture isn’t bound just by race or ethnicity. Anytime there’s a group of individuals with collective features that might lend parishioners to see the group as different or “them” vs. “us”, we can look to the work of ecclesial integration to address the gap.

In a series of posts over the next couple of months, we’ll introduce you to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB’s) work on shared parishes and ecclesial integration and what that would look like in an autism or special needs context.

Here are a couple things to know off the bat:

  • Parishes go through 6 Stages of Intercultural Sensitivity. Much like the stages of grief, parishes can be in more than one stage of intercultural sensitivity at a time and can move between the various stages in a non-linear or non-progressive manor. In other words, they might move forward, but also backward, and they might skip a stage as well.


  • Pastoral leadership from the Pastor himself is critical, and also from the whole staff, and also from all of the parish leadership. The Pastor can help his staff and leadership develop intercultural competencies and the leadership or staff can help the pastor develop intercultural competencies. I’m not sure it’s possible to achieve full ecclesial integration if only one or the other develops the intercultural competencies.


  • There are 3 Intercultural Competencies identified: Attitude, Knowledge, and Skills.


  • The Pastor and parish leadership need to utilize their intercultural competencies to not only move through the stages of ecclesial integration, but to also develop intercultural competencies within all parishioners – otherwise there will be obstacles to achieving ecclesial integration. Think of it this way, even if the pastor and leadership have the right attitude, knowledge, and skills, the parish is made up of ALL people and parishioners in the pew can still create barriers to participation for the special needs communities.


  • Ecclesial Integration is a developmental process. The USCCB identified 9 Movements towards ecclesial integration. We can roughly translate these movements for the special needs communities, but the simplest way to address them now is recognize three themes of these movements: Welcoming, Belonging, Ownership. From a parish leadership-centric view, we welcome the special needs communities, we help foster a sense of belonging within the community, and then move towards a sense of ownership – the parish community is ours, oriented outward to bring the Good News to all.


In the months to come, we’ll break this framework open and get our hands dirty with practical tools and skills needed to apply this framework within our parishes.

What are you most excited to learn more about? Let me know in the comments.

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