Catholic Herald staff
“We are in an unprecedented time not only in our country, but specifically in our ministry.”
This assertion was made by parish catechetical leader and youth minister Jen Metzger in an April 24 blog post at blessedjourney.net. She works for two parishes in the eastern reaches of the diocese, St. Theresa of Avila in Three Lakes and St. Kunegunda in Sugar Camp.
In the post, she commented on the current concerns for those “searching for ways to do what we do in a different, long-distance way,” adding that focusing on one group at a time has been fruitful for her own ministry.
One of those groups – rarely given a spotlight – is persons who have special needs. One such person is Amber Polarski.
An adult parishioner at St. Theresa’s, Polarski was preparing for full communion with the Catholic Church and she waits, with dozens of others throughout the diocese, for the day she can receive her sacraments.
While each parish is making efforts to connect with these candidates and catechumens, Metzger has given particular attention to transferring the adaptive program and methods she was implementing for Polarski’s RCIA program to be in line with social distancing and safety measures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The “perfect match” has been a combination of “old school communication and technology,” Metzger writes.
In a phone interview, she explained that in addition to regular phone calls to visit with the young woman, she has directly recorded video teaching sessions onto Polarski’s iPad.
Polarski’s mother, Donna, was received into the Catholic Church last year, and it was her journey that planted the seeds of faith and desire in her daughter.
When the in-person meetings had to cease, Metzger and Amber’s mother got creative.
Following diocesan safe environment practices and social distancing guidelines, Metzger models her video recording on Sesame Street, speaking directly to the listener as if having a personal one-on-one conversation.
In this case, it is one-on-one, and Metzger reads and reflects on catechetical content, leaving plenty of silent moments for Polarski to think and respond.
Having previously met each week with hands-on materials and conversation, the new formation mode definitely requires more time and support. Metzger has credited Donna’s initiative and support for the success of the joint venture.
It is this “dedicated individual attention” that Metzger says often “goes by the wayside.”
“As a community,” she said, “we have a tendency to see somebody who has different challenges in this life (in particular, intellectual ones), and think they can’t really learn.”
They might be allowed to receive the sacraments, but aren’t always given “the respect and time to do what we’re called to do,” Metzger added, “to educate each person to the ability that they’re able.”
In Metzger’s role at the two parishes, she works with persons of all ages. She said her work with Polarski is simply a testament to God’s personal journey with each person – figuring out where a person is at and starting from there. In that sense, special needs and intellectual challenges are just one of a variety of personal starting points.
The benefits of her efforts have been mutual.
She said, “Anytime that we’re teaching, if we’re putting our whole heart into it, we’re probably going to get more out of it than the person we’re ministering to.”
Describing the “truly true joy” it has been to work with Polarski, Metzger spoke of her openness, willingness, eagerness to learn, and the candor with which she expresses her feelings.
The teacher quoted her student: “I am ready. Jesus is knocking on my heart.”
Metzger said witnessing that spirit and disposition makes one self-reflect, “Am I as open in my heart to Jesus as she is? Am I able to be more open and vulnerable?”
While the experience has kept her on her toes from a professional standpoint, Metzger admitted she has personally noticed tremendous growth through Polarski’s kindness, love and ability to learn.
This isn’t the catechist’s first experience working with those with special needs or particular struggles, but it is the first time she has had the full responsibility.
Metzger believes her experience can enrich each child and adult going through faith formation programs in utmost respect for each person’s individuality.
“Every kid and adult learns differently,” she said, encouraging those in catechetical ministry to find new and interesting ways to present topics.
“The most important thing is to figure out a way to reach their heart,” Metzger affirmed. “Make sure that the people we are ministering to know that God loves them, and that Jesus is just waiting to walk with them,” adding that if whatever barriers each person has to that relationship – not just the knowledge – no teaching techniques or innovations will matter.
Asked about specific resources, Metzger mentioned Loyola Press has adaptive kits for sacramental preparation.
Anything hands-on has been “really, really fruitful.” She has used felt boards, craft projects and the “Brother Francis” catechetical cartoon series (available at formed.org and brotherfrancis.com).
Scriptural coloring pages and audible Bible and rosary resources have also been helpful as Metzger has tried to both respect Polarski’s age and stay at an appropriate level, given that the candidate is still learning to read.
Before the mandated social distancing, the two took some virtual tours, including one of the cathedral in Superior, and watched Pope Francis to broaden her understanding of the regional and universal community of the Catholic Church.
Metzger noted Polarski is just “as irritated as everyone” to continue in this waiting period, but she has an understanding of why it is necessary. In a high-risk category herself, she knows she will receive her desired sacraments as soon as she is able and has embraced “anxiously and prayerfully waiting.”