February 11 was the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, reminding one of the healing properties of this great shrine and place of pilgrimage. My youngest daughter, aged 21, who has Down’s syndrome, has been going to Lourdes almost every year since the age of ten; at first with the HCPT pilgrimage at Easter, and since the age of 18 with a diocesan group who stay in Hosanna House.
I mention this because I have been pondering the recent news item about a mother in the Leeds diocese, Clare Ellarby, who alleges that her son, Denum, who also has Down’s syndrome, is being discriminated against because he has not been included in First Communion preparation classes with his year group.
Obviously there is more to this item than what has been made public: Mrs Ellarby agrees that she is not a regular Mass-goer and therefore neither is Denum; it is also not clear whether he is being held back because of his learning disability or because, as a diocesan spokesman put it, of his family’s non-participation in the regular life of the Church. Mrs Ellarby has declared that “it is [Denum’s] right to make his First Holy Communion”. This statement slightly worried me, coming as it seems to from the culture of “rights” with which we are over- familiar these days. I would have thought that receiving the Sacraments should be thought of as a privilege rather than a “right”.
I don’t know Denum’s age but I delayed letting Cecilia make her First Communion until she was ten – just before she was due to go to Lourdes. It gave her more time to become mature enough to appreciate the fundamental requisite: that she was receiving Jesus rather than a wafer of bread. I also wanted her to be able to join with the other members of the pilgrimage when they received Communion in the Basilica in Lourdes. We chose to celebrate the occasion at the Saturday evening Mass rather than the Sunday morning one, as the congregation would be much smaller and thus less intimidating for her.
I made a little basic booklet for her, with pictures and simple sentences in large print: the pictures included her patron, St Cecilia, a tabernacle, baby Jesus in the crib, Jesus on the Cross and other familiar images. When our parish priest, testing her, asked her to make the sign of the Cross she got it right (more or less) and when he asked her where Jesus lived in the church, she replied without hesitation, “In the tabernacle”. After she had made her First Communion she told me “Jesus is my best friend”. I don’t think her understanding has developed much beyond this point but it doesn’t need to; she knows what matters.
Every Sunday at Mass she looks at the booklet I made for her and also at the pictures in a large illustrated children’s New Testament. Once, I confess, I got tired of going through this latter book in the slow way she enjoys and tried to speed up the process by starting at random in the middle, with one of Jesus’ miracles. Cecilia wasn’t having any of it. She fixed me with a baleful look and asked, “Where’s Gabriel?” She knew better than I that the story has to start with Mary and the angel at the Annunciation.
Several years later she was confirmed and very appropriately took the Confirmation name of St Bernadette. Our bishop, His Grace Peter Doyle of Northampton, was understanding and allowed her to be confirmed standing up, rather than kneeling, with her older sister, who was her sponsor, making her response. Now she is a stalwart (if occasionally stroppy) soldier of Christ, keen to help put out the coffee cups for parishioners’ socialising after Mass, helping me to put fresh flowers in the church when it is our turn on the rota and playing a key part in the Offertory procession each Sunday. Yesterday we sang the Lourdes hymn – “Immaculate Mary our hearts are on fire” – in honour of the Feast; the person standing beside me beamed in recognition and sang the chorus – “Ave Ave Ave Maria” – with great gusto.
I hope very much that Clare Ellarby will be able to resolve her difficulties with her parish priest, that Denum will be able to proceed to make his First Communion in due course and that the whole family will come to play a full part in the life of their parish. This has nothing to do with “rights” and everything to do with the privilege of being members of Christ’s Church.