Down Syndrome and the Sacramental Year

Julianna Reconciliation Kit
We didn’t have Christian’s phone handy to catch the squeal of excitement when she realized this was for her!

It’s That Year for Miss Julianna. Second grade.

If you’re not Catholic, you may not know what I’m talking about. But second grade is a big year, involving firsts of two major sacraments: Reconciliation and Eucharist.

In other words, it’s crunch time for this mama who’s been convincing everyone she knows what she’s talking about in teaching faith to kids. Child #1 did his sacramental prep work at school, so Christian & I only had to support the process. Child #2 is in public schools and there’s not time to do it in one hour a week at “church school.” So the prep work is all on us.

And then there’s that extra chromosome, which has implications for the “age of reason.” The idea is that kids should be capable of understanding what they’re doing before they receive the sacraments. (Well. Officially receiving the sacraments, that is. I learned that a good friend of mine, who happens to be a priest, served himself Communion well before he was supposed to, too. I take hope from that.)

I had some anxiety about whether we’d get resistance about having Julianna receive the sacraments this year. Her conceptual understanding is spotty, to say the least. On the other hand, who ever really understands? Even as adults, we receive the Eucharist with a sliver of belief and a hair of understanding, and all the rest is shaky faith. We only know that it changes us. That it fills some place inside, that we are incomplete without. That we hunger for it.

The Eucharist is very, very conceptual, but to Julianna it looks concrete. You hold your hands up, you have the host placed in your hand, you eat. Same with the cup.

But before First Eucharist comes First Reconciliation. And Reconciliation is all conceptual. How do you explain the concept of sin to a girl who answers the question “What did you do at school today?” with: “Good!” Let alone figure out how to surmount the difficulty of getting her to have a rational conversation with a priest without Mom or Dad there to act as go-between.

We have a new pastor this year at our parish, so I laid out the situation. He was very open; he gave me the go-ahead, and so now we’re deep in preparation work. It’s high time. I’ve always whispered in the kids’ ears about what’s going on at Mass, trying to help them connect with something that is over their heads, but let’s be honest. When you have four kids and one of them participates loudly and keeps herself occupied, it’s easy to let her do her thing and focus attention on the wigglers, the movers, and the shakers, who sometimes think church is a boxing ring or a LEGO construction (more accurately de-construction) lab. But that means she draws the short straw in faith formation. And when that same child has to have your help counting out every math problem, and every reading comprehension worksheet is a painstaking process, the your time and energy is often exhausted before you ever get to the point of doing faith formation at home, either.

But as with all things in the realm of parenting, when Mom and Dad decide it’s important, it happens. It’s happening now, and she’s so excited about it. I’ve been going through her Reconciliation book with her, a page or two at a time. I can see the big picture in the lessons, but I know when I was a kid I couldn’t, and if I couldn’t, then Julianna has no chance. She’s game, but she’s just along for the ride.

So it was like Christmas for both of us yesterday morning when the religious ed director walked into choir warmup and handed us a box that said ADAPTIVE RECONCILIATION KIT. I had to abandon my leadership role for a couple of minutes to get the box open and see what was inside. Julianna latched onto a set of picture cards to illustrate good choices and bad choices, and for a while, even at Mass, she wrapped her arms around that box and just hugged it.

It’s a good set, very visual, with a simplified act of contrition in pictures and “I’m sorry” cards” and an easy-to-read picture book that boils down the concepts and the procedures to their essence. We spent some more time with it yesterday afternoon. And now, at last, I feel like we’re on our way.

Updates to come as the year goes on.