Serving those with Special Needs

Ministry gives a voice to Catholics with disabilities

Ana Barraza, a certified special education teacher with a certification in digital evangelization, serves the church as a national Catholic bilingual speaker and a catechetical leader.

She combines all of her talents in her passion to serve teens and children with special needs in Catholic parishes in the diocese, their parents and those involved in adaptive faith formation.

“If you think about this ministry, it’s an invitation for all of us to serve,” says Ana, who led workshops in English and Spanish last November for parish staff, catechetical leaders, youth ministry coordinators and parents on “Welcoming Persons with Disabilities in Faith Formation.” The workshops were sponsored by Loyola Press.

“I don’t like to impose my ideas but invite parishes to do more, how they can learn together and how they can serve families with disabilities in their own community,” says Ana, a member of the diocese’s Ministry for Catholics with DisAbilities Committee and a catechist in adaptive faith formation at St. Clare Parish in Roseville. “The church has always served those in need. It’s heartbreaking when we don’t serve families and children with special needs. This is a challenge to me to do something because we can, and as a church we are called to serve one another by our faith.”

All parishes and families are impacted by special needs issues whether they realize it or not. The estimates are that 1 in 7 (14 percent) of children ages 3 to 17 have some type of developmental disability. According to Loyola Press, “the impact can be more a measure of those who are not in attendance, rather than those who are, as many special needs families bypass participation in the absence of welcoming accommodations.”

Ana says adaptive faith formation and catechesis is not just for children with autism. There are many types of disabilities among individuals, newborn through age 22, including deafness, blindness, emotional disturbance, hard of hearing, intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, learning disabilities, speech, language or visual impairments, or traumatic brain injuries.

One in 10 children has a disability, Ana notes. “Awareness is key,” she says. “It could be your own child, your grandchild, or even your friend. Sometimes church ministers ask me what they can do about it. I invite them to look at their own parish mission statement and also become informed about disabilities. They could start to offer ongoing support to families and welcome their children.”

Persons with special needs, whether they have an intellectual or physical disability, want what every Catholic wants, Ana says. “Persons with disabilities need to be welcomed and to be treated with dignity by including them in faith formation.”

Ana and her husband, Alex, have two adult children and a teenager. For the past three years, Alex has served as one of the diocese’s regional coordinators for youth and young adult ministry and Pastoral Juvenil. They served in youth ministry in several dioceses for more than 20 years before coming to Sacramento.

Ana says it was her desire to combine her love for special education, youth ministry, music, catechetics and most recently, her work for a certificate in digital evangelization (from the University of John Paul II in San Jose, Costa Rica), that inspired her passion for ministry to Catholics with disabilities.

She often encounters two types of families: those who have a child with an intellectual disability who don’t know who to ask for adaptive sacramental preparation and faith formation; and those who are “so courageous it doesn’t matter what challenges they face. They know their child needs God and they go to someone in charge and say ‘I want my child to receive first Communion.’ If they are met with the answer, ‘your child doesn’t need first Communion because he/she is innocent,’ you can imagine how frustrating that would be. I’ve heard these stories many times.

“How would you feel as parents if you got that response?” Ana asks. “It’s an old way of thinking. The beautiful thing is that parents try again, even when their child has various needs.”

She says faith formation must be adapted to include children and teens with disabilities who have not received all their sacraments, so they can receive them and also find community. There are many opportunities for virtual teaching, family catechesis in the home and parents accompanying their children in faith formation classes, she notes.

She recommends parishioners can ensure that persons with disabilities are contributing members by:

  • Developing faith formation and socialization opportunities at the parish level for children with disabilities and their families;
  • Supporting the development of sacramental preparation programs located and identified in each deanery, for children and youth with special needs;
  • Assisting in the training and formation of qualified ministers to serve as catechists for this population;
  • Improving ministerial formation for persons with disabilities to empower them to share their gifts with others.

“If you feel called to this ministry – if you say yes in your heart and want to do something but don’t know what to do – be aware in your own parish and tell others about this ministry,” Ana emphasizes. “Become an ambassador. If you are not convinced, you can always pray for this ministry. Everyone has something to offer and we all use the gifts we have.”

Learn more

About the Ministry for Catholics with DisAbilities in the Diocese of Sacramento and find more resources at

Ana leads a support/resource meeting for directors/coordinators of religious education who are providing faith formation and sacramental preparation to children with disabilities on the second Friday of each month at 2 p.m. at St. Clare Parish in Roseville or virtually via Zoom. Email for information.

Catholic Herald Issue