The answer is a qualified yes. From Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities
19. The eucharist is the most august sacrament, in which Christ the Lord himself is contained, offered, and received, and by which the Church constantly lives and grows. It is the summit and the source of all Christian worship and life, signifying and effecting the unity of the people of God, providing spiritual nourishment for the recipient, and achieving the building up of the Body of Christ. The celebration of the eucharist is the center of the entire Christian life (Canon 897).
20. Parents, those who take the place of parents, and pastors are to see to it that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly prepared and are nourished by the eucharist as early as possible. Pastors are to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom they judge are not sufficiently disposed (Canon 914). It is important to note, however, that the criterion for reception of holy communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally. Pastors are encouraged to consult with parents, those who take the place of parents, diocesan personnel involved with disability issues, psychologists, religious educators, and other experts in making their judgment. If it is determined that a parishioner who is disabled is not ready to receive the sacrament, great care is to be taken in explaining the reasons for this decision. Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament. The existence of a disability is not considered in and of itself as disqualifying a person from receiving the eucharist.
21. Eucharistic celebrations are often enhanced by the exercise of the diverse forms of ministry open to the laity. In choosing those who will be invited to use their gifts in service to the parish community, the parish pastoral staff should be mindful of extending Christ’s welcoming invitation to qualified parishioners with disabilities.
When we were looking into First Communion for Rachel we wanted two things. We wanted to follow the teaching of the Church as hard as it can be sometimes when your child is disable there are things that won’t work for them, if it was determined that Rachel lacked sufficient understanding or was unable to receive reverently we would have accepted that and trusted that God would bless her life in other ways. But we wanted our child to be able to participate as fully as possible in the life of the Church.
I was really sadded by the story of an eight-year-old girl who was intolerant of wheat and the way her mother decided to deal with the issue of her daughter receiving communion. The only valid medium for the Eucharistic bread is wheat. For those who can’t consume wheat they may receive the wine only and that is valid, every bit as much as the reception of bread alone. What bothered me so much about the above news story was how the mother acknowledged that she knew that her daughter could receive the wine, but in her opinion an eight-year-old shouldn’t ingest any alcohol and so the entire Church would have to change the dogma of two-thousand years because she didn’t want her daughter to have a miniscule taste of wine. “It’s not appropriate for children to drink alcohol,” she said. “Even a sip.” The last thing I wanted to do when looking at this sacrament for my own child was to become so caught up in what I wanted that I missed what was resonable and right. So the question of Rachel understanding that the host was not just a little snack weighed on me heavily.
There were some signs that Rachel did understand. She had always been very caught up with food. One cookie was never enough. It was always surprising to me that she had never reached for or grabbed a host when I went to receive Communion. But reason suggested that since she never had one she might not see them as food. I was somewhat comforted by the idea that in “Cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament”. I talked to my priest, to our Diocese director of the Office for People with Disabilities and to the Lord in prayer. But in the end it was God, through Rachel, who let us know that she understood enough to receive.
My small bits of advice gleaned from what I have read and my own experience:
- As your child approaches the age typical in your parish for First Communion speak with your priest and/or the person responsible for religious instruction in your parish. Go in with an open mind and heart and explain your child’s situation as fully and objectively as you can. Listen to what they say and consider it thoughtfully.The vast majority of priests want to serve their parishioner and they want to serve the Church and to do both faithfully. In my experience it has actually been the more liberal priests who are the ones most likely to say that your child shouldn’t participate in the Sacraments at all. I have heard several mothers say that they went to Fr. and he said their child didn’t need the Eucharist (or reconcilliation). Sometimes going back with Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities in hand is helpful. Generally their reason for refusing is some idiotic banality about how “your child is so close to God already because their are disabled they don’t need to receive Communion.” Don’t buy this, we all need grace. It is one thing if your child really doesn’t understand that this is a special thing, a holy thing, and would not approach the sacrament with reverence, but not some fluffiness about not needing it.
- If you can not come to some agreement at the parish level don’t be afraid to go to the diocese. I wouldn’t say just go straight to the Bishop, but if you need to you need to.
- When it is decided that your child is capable of receiving the Eucharist there are some wonderful resources for helping your child prepare. Meyer Johnson has communion symbols available for their products. We used these to help create a social story for Rachel. There are also some good books available for First Communion with colorful pictures and simple explanations.
- Test drive with an unconsecrated host if you think there is ANY chance that your child will spit it out or not eat it. Reverence for the Body of Christ has to come above all else. I know there are a few people who might think that sounds harsh, but if we don’t believe in the Eucharistic miracle what is the point? I know personally the hurt that pulls at your heart when you realise that your child can do something because of their disability and how much worse it is with those lovely rites of passage like First Communion, but we are talking about the actual presence of Christ and the reverence that demands must trump parental sentiment. When we were preparing Rachel for her first communion we brought home a half a dozen unconsecrated hosts and she was happy to eat it and seems to like the flat, tasteless breads. I know that for some people with autism the texture is off-putting. Be sure to let your priest know if a smaller bit is better. For the rite to be valid only the smallest bit is needed so be sure to explore that option before the day if that seems appropriate.
- You can also validly receive the wine alone. The same caveat applies. Be sure that your child won’t just spit it out, but if the bread is not working for you that could be an option to explore. Your priest will most likely be happy to work with you on this. Most parishes that I have been in have allowed the children to try a tiny sip of the unconsecrated wine before they experienced it in mass. Some children really don’t like the taste and no priest wants to risk desecrating the host.
- If a packed First Communion mass would spell disaster for you First Communicant talk to your priest about about your child either receiving their First Communion as part of a regular mass or communion service. Sometimes a small weekday mass works better. Or see if your Diocese has masses for people with disabilities that might serve your families needs.
Finally, the Church wants to serve your family and your child, each individual member of the Body of Christ. At the same time She is also trusted with safeguarding the sacraments and traditions of the Church. Most priests, the US Bishops and Rome all echo that every being, no matter their state in life or their disability is of infinite worth, a full person of dignity and worthy of the utmost respect and they want each soul to participate in the sacramental life as much as they able to within the limits of their understanding and capabilities.