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Spiritually Able: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching the Faith to Children with Special Needs

One of the first impressions I took away from “Spiritually Able” is that it is a very hands-on, cut-to-the-chase book.  Authors David and Mercedes Rizzo, whose daughter, Danielle, is non-verbal and autistic, know that Catholic families like theirs are already very aware of what life with a special needs child is like.  That part doesn’t require an explanation.  What is needed, however, are practical, detailed suggestions for teaching the faith to these special children. This is precisely what the Rizzos set out to do in “Spiritually Able,” and they do it well.

That is not to say that they offer no narrative; both Rizzos speak very movingly about what their lives were like both before and after Danielle was born. (They have two older sons and one younger daughter.)  They are also very honest about their own struggle to come to terms with her disability: “Danielle’s autism has been our greatest challenge in life, but it has also been one of our greatest blessings,” they write.  “It has tested our faith and strengthened it, and it has taught us to trust God even when things turn our far different from what we expected.”  Indeed, readers who do not have a disabled child will still be inspired by the family’s commitment to Danielle, their faith and her religious education.

So following a brief introduction, the book moves quickly into nuts-and-bolts information, becoming a detailed, “how-to” resource for parents concerning the faith education of their special needs child.  While a great deal of that advice revolves around teaching and reinforcing concepts at home, the Rizzos are very clear that their suggestions are meant to complement, not replace, any parish religious education program.  They were lucky enough to have a special needs catechist in their own church who was able to work with Danielle, but for a while they also took advantage of a special program offered at a neighboring Catholic parish.  The rule of thumb, they advise, is for parents to seek out and use whatever resources are available to them in the parishes and places where they live.

“Spiritually Able” covers a wide range of religious topics and experiences, from familiarizing your child with the church building itself, to attendance at Mass, reception of the sacraments, inclusion in parish life, and Christian service.  Each chapter in the book focuses on one theme and follows a similar format: The Rizzos first share their story “to set the stage” and then move into two or three lessons which reinforce the concept or sacrament being taught.  Activities are adaptable and several suggestions are offered for how each can be utilized with children of varying abilities.  Finally, every chapter concludes with suggestions on how to move from the lesson to real life, plus a link to Scripture and a meditation geared toward parents.  To complement the book, the Rizzos have also helped develop special “Adaptive Kits,” which aid catechists and parents with both sacramental preparation and general faith formation.  These, like “Spiritually Able,” are available through Loyola Press.

One more important point should also be mentioned — even those without special needs children in their lives can benefit from reading this book because it helps promote an awareness of what these families encounter every day.  “Few people outside the community of children with special needs and their families understand how much of a challenge it can be,” the Rizzos conclude.  “We applaud the efforts of all parents of children with special needs as they struggle to live an authentic life that honors God and those in their care.”


About the Author:
For David and Mercedes Rizzo, the book, “Spiritually Able” and the “Adaptive Kits” that can be used in conjunction with it, are simultaneously a labor of and lesson in love.  Widely recognized in the world of Catholic bloggers as experts on the topic of working with special needs children and adults, their writing and advice have appeared on sites associated with their publisher, Loyola Press, as well as the popular parenting site www.catholicmom.com.

Although their daughter, Danielle, was certainly the inspiration for this book, they each come from a background which helped prepare them for working with individuals like her.  Mercedes, a certified teacher who has taught in both public and parochial schools, has provided support to children who have individualized education plans; David is a physical therapist who has worked extensively with both adults and children challenged by disabilities.  In addition, he has been a presenter at various religious education congresses as well as The National Catholic Partnership for Disabilities and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership Annual Conference.  

The Rizzos have been married for more than 20 years and have three children in addition to Danielle:  Brendan, Colin and Shannon.  They reside in Marlton, N.J., and are members of St. Isaac Jogues Parish there.

Book Review "River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times" By Susan Bailey.

One of the first things that attracted me to this book was the fact that it involved both hard times and a kayak.  I have a friend who has known both; more than 20 years ago, her youngest son was permanently paralyzed as the result of a hockey accident.  In the intervening years, as he and every member of his family has had to come to grips with the enormity of what  happened and how radically it changed their lives, my friend discovered that some of her spiritual healing came in the form of a kayak.  Even now, she tells me, there is such peace that comes from sitting quietly on the river, letting God’s spirit wash over her.

Indeed, the subtitle of the first chapter of “River of Grace” could have been written by my friend.  It simply states, “What God Taught Me through My Kayak” and for author Susan Bailey, it was also this simple boat that signaled the beginning of a profound and unexpected journey into the heart of God. 

This book has many pluses to recommend it.  To begin with, it is a highly personal memoir, written in a tone which allows the reader to walk with the author as she essentially goes on a spiritual pilgrimage.  Like any such journey, this one will take her from a place of darkness, confusion and near despair, into the presence of light, peace and the authentic self God was calling her to be.  It also opens her to God’s presence in ways and places she never expected.  “I grew up thinking that grace came from a church building, granted by a priest during a formal gathering such as the Mass,” she says.  “It never occurred to me that it could come from elsewhere, especially something as mundane as a boat.”

Bailey deals with life events that most readers can relate to:  the death of both her parents, a near financial disaster for her and her husband, the loss – happily temporary – of an ability that she thought she would have forever and as such, took for granted, and a significant change in her husband’s spiritual life that reverberated through the whole family.  The fact that she presents her reactions to these things truthfully, without any pious sugar-coating, makes this a genuine and honest work.  Because of that, the insights and advice she shares about how to be open to God’s grace are genuine and honest as well.

In addition to the elements of memoir, the book can also serve as a kind of retreat.  Each chapter contains both questions for the reader to reflect on – through journaling, if he or she is comfortable with that – as well as what the author calls “Flow Lessons” – practices toward grace which are more tactile in nature.  The author also references her web site, www.beasone.org, for further resources, videos, and “flow lessons.”  Not every reader will necessarily be comfortable with or want to do every activity she suggests, but the book works whether all or some of the practices are followed – or if the reader chooses to read and reflect on Bailey’s words alone.

 The only criticism I have with this book – and it is a minor one compared to the positives of the whole – is that it sometimes seems repetitious.  I occasionally caught myself thinking that I had read nearly the same thought in a previous chapter; but perhaps that is to be expected, as these same lessons of grace go deeper and deeper as one progresses to the close of the book.  And in the end, that is what this journey has been about.  “That invitation to go deeper is the call of grace,” Bailey concludes.  “When we obey that call, we agree to let God be our guide.”

"River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times"  By Susan Bailey,  Indiana:  Ave Maria Press, 2015.  193 pages.  Paperback: $14.12, Kindle and Nook: $10.49
 

About the Author

Susan Bailey wears many hats.  She is a marketing/advertising assistant for a local real estate firm in her area, but she is also very active in the Church as a writer, speaker and musician. 

In addition to having written several books,  Bailey hosts her own blogs, which can be found at louisamayalcottismypassion.com and beasone.org. She is also a frequent contributor to CatholicMom.com and the Association of Catholic Women Bloggers.   Her monthly column, “Be As One,” appears in the Catholic Free Press, the diocesan paper of the Diocese of Worcester, Mass.  Currently, she is an associate member of the Commission for Women of the Diocese of Worcester, for which she has previously served as both chairperson and secretary. 

A professional musician and graphic artist, Bailey released three CD’s and has performed on EWTN, CatholicTV and at World Youth Day in 2002.  She has served as a cantor at St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Westborough, Mass., for more than 15 years.

Bailey is a graduate of Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, with concentrations in U.S. history and music.  She and her husband, Rich, have two grown children and currently reside in North Grafton, Mass.

'Pray with Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray with Your Children'

"Pray with Me: Seven Simple Ways to Pray with Your Children"

By Grace Mazza Urbanski. Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2015. 160 pages. $14.95 paperback, $11.99 Kindle, $10.49 Nook.

This beautiful little book should be among the items any new Catholic mother receives at her first baby shower. Urbanski, herself the mother of five children, outlines in gentle terms just how parents can convey a love of prayer to their children, even if those same parents start out feeling uncomfortable or inadequate to the task. As the author states in her introduction, "We think a prayerful person should also be a perfect person," an expectation which is precisely the opposite of what many parents feel on any given stressed-filled day. However, that is not a prerequisite for helping children form a prayerful relationship with God. Instead, she says, "Jesus invites us to focus on the beautiful hope he plants deep in our hearts, our fundamental desire for our children's good."

Urbanski approaches praying in seven different ways, some which may be familiar and others which may show a new way of relating to God. Her first chapter, Spontaneous Prayer, speaks of praying from the heart and from the "stuff" of everyday life. "Like an enthusiastic best friend, God loves to hear from us about even the most mundane details of our lives," she says. "Nothing is omitted. Spontaneous prayer invites God into the fullness of each day." In the second chapter, Praying from Memory, she explores the area most of us think of when we "say our prayers" – those beautiful words we learned so thoroughly and so long ago that they spring to our minds and lips almost without thinking. (The appendix of the book is, in fact, "A Treasury of Memorized Prayer"). In the face of differing thoughts (mostly in educational settings) about the value of memorization, she points out another way of looking at it: "Memorized prayer," she notes, "can become robotic, but consider another phrase we use to describe memorization: learning by heart." It is the heart which allows such prayer to nourish us.

In chapters three and four, Urbanski urges parents and children to pray both with Scripture and song. Chapter three essentially explores Lectio Divina on a child's level (with a good dose of St. Ignatius thrown in), while even the most "can't carry a tune in a bucket" parent may be amazed at the science behind the value of music for the human mind, heart and soul. "Biologically, singing releases chemicals in the brain that make us happier, more hopeful, and more trusting," Urbanski notes. "Spiritually, lifting our voices in sung prayer opens our hearts as well." And if the idea of singing seems intimidating, she reminds us that "like any activity that is a little new, singing together gets easier when we do it every day."

"Silence takes practice" the author tells us in the next chapter, but it is in silence that we most often hear the voice of God. In a world in which we are all – children included – bombarded by constant noise, cultivating the ability to find quiet time leads us to God, and then naturally to what Urbanski discusses in chapter six, Reflection. "Reflective prayer," she says, "invites us to see ourselves as we truly are: unique, beloved children of God." Finally, she talks about the Apostleship of Prayer, the Morning Offering, and praying with the Pope. "Faithfully remembering the pope's prayer intentions each month expands a child's worldview," she concludes. "By the end of a calendar year, children have considered 24 diverse groups of people and global issues."

This is an encouraging book, one that not only shows parents how to pray with their children, but how to pray better themselves. Highly recommended.

 

Book review: 'Bringing Lent home with Pope Francis'


Book Review
Kay Winchester
'Bringing Lent Home with Pope Francis'

By Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle. Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2015. 96 pages. Cost: $3.50 paperback, $3.32 Kindle, $3.49 Nook

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle is no stranger to anyone who tunes in regularly to EWTN. A wife and mother of five, she is the host of "Everyday Blessings for Catholic Moms" and "Catholic Mom's Café," as well as being a frequent guest on "EWTN Bookmark." "Faith and Family Live" (now incorporated into Catholic Digest) named her one of the Top Ten Most Fascinating Catholics in 2009.

O'Boyle is also a prolific author, having written some 20 books on faith and family, including "Rooted in Love" and "The Kiss of Jesus." Invited to the Vatican in 2008 to participate in an international congress for women, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Apostolic Letter Lulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), she has received an Apostolic blessing on her books from both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

One of the things she treasures most is her friendship with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They met more than a dozen times and shared a correspondence that spanned a period of 10 years, which inspired her to become a Lay Missionary of Charity. You can find out more about O'Boyle at her web site, www.donnacooperoboyle.com.

Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle has written a new book of Lenten reflections for families, and, like her other books in this series – "Bringing Lent Home with Mother Teresa," (Ave Maria Press), "Bringing Lent Home with St. Therese of Lisieux," (Ave Maria Press) and "Bringing Lent Home with St. John Paul II," (Ave Maria Press) this one also invites the reader to contemplate the season through daily "prayers, reflections and activities." Each of the day's meditations is based on the three traditional pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – as well as the life and words of a particular spiritual guide; this year, that guide is, appropriately enough, Pope Francis.

The format of the book is designed to be easy for families to use; as O'Boyle says in her introduction, " … simply gather your family and move page-by-page, day-by-day, forging your way through Lent." She suggests gathering wherever people are comfortable, and then using her words as a springboard to what works best for each family's individual circumstances.

The basic structure remains the same each day; first, there is a quote from Pope Francis which sets the tone for all the rest. Each one is taken from such diverse sources as his homilies, remarks at his general audiences, and even his comments on Twitter. Although some are longer than others, they all bring one particular thought into focus and are incorporated into the opening prayer, which can be led by either a parent or an older child. Then there is a brief story from the pope's life (by the end of Lent, the reader is taken from the day he was born in 1936 until the present), followed by a suggestion for daily "fasting," which can be anything from "Today, fast from wanting things to go your way" to "Today, fast from too much busyness as well as technology." (In fact, one of the real strengths of this book is that most of the "fasting" suggested is often from attitudes or habits, although food is occasionally mentioned as well.)

The daily meditation ends with an idea for "almsgiving" which, like the fasting suggestion, moves beyond just material goods to things like "Make a point to place emphasis on others' good words and accomplishments" or "Show mercy and forgiveness today." The final prayer, which incorporates daily intentions as well as the familiar Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, brings everything to a close. The fact that the rhythm of the book is simple and very adaptable to the circumstances of most families makes it a good resource for Lent.

The only caveat I would mention is that this book is probably best saved for families of school-aged children; even at that, some of the material will need some extra explanation on the part of the parent (there is a daily parent reflection to help with this, which O'Boyle suggests be read ahead of time.) I found this especially true in the telling of the pope's life; while adults might appreciate what is going on, very few little ones will understand the intricacies of things like "the solidarity campaign for the bicentenary of the independence of Argentina." (Some adults may want to do a little extra research on some of these things as well!) In fact, I found I identified more with O'Boyle's telling of Francis' life once he became pope; at that point her chronicling seems move from mostly facts to an emphasis on the pope's message.

This book can be used with any cycle of Lenten readings, and so can be revisited in another year as well. The last page, which is Francis' prayer to "Mary, Undoer of Knots," can be prayed any time.

Carrie Handy is the Respect Life Coordinator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

Project Rachel

Retreats 2016

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Day of Hope and Healing

(Burlington Area)

Friday-Sunday, April 8-10, 2016

Rachel's Vineyard Retreat Weekend

For more information about these retreats or to speak confidentially to a trained Project Rachel professional, please contact: (802) 658-4118 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Red, White, Blue, and Catholic

By Stephen P. White. Missouri: Liguori Publications, 2016. 96 pages. Paperback $9.99, at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Every four years, Americans are reminded of a great gift that we have been given, namely, the right to choose those who will represent us at the highest levels of government. This is never a privilege to be taken lightly; I still remember, as a young child, my grandfather, who was a first generation American and a veteran of World War I, reminding everyone he met on Election Day that it was not only their right, but their sacred duty to "get out and vote."

In addition to being Americans, nearly 70 million of us are also Catholic, or identify as Catholic. Even taking into account those who are not yet old enough to cast a ballot, that's a substantial percentage of the electorate, about 32 million or one quarter of the voters in the 2012 election; the question is, does being a Catholic have any bearing on who we vote for and how we live out our other responsibilities as American citizens?

In his new book, "Red, White, Blue and Catholic," Stephen White explores these questions. Though not a very long read – it is only 96 pages of actual text – he manages to hit enough high points to engage the reader in some very probing self-analysis. And although he certainly talks about presidential politics, he reminds us that we are citizens every day of the year, not just on the "first Tuesday following the first Monday of November" in even-numbered years.

Anyone looking for a simple "checklist" of who and what to consider in the voting booth will have to wait until the last chapter – number six – for a summary of that information. In the first chapter, White outlines the Catholic understanding of both politics and civil society; "[T]he four permanent principles of Catholic social teaching [are] dignity of the human person, solidarity, subsidiarity, and the common good" he says. It is crucial that he begins here because without the cohesion provided by this discussion, all the rest could simply be a series of potentially disjointed issues. Once that foundation has been laid, he goes on to discuss things like marriage and family, truth (as opposed to relativism), economics, and finally freedom and the law.

Throughout the book, White emphasizes that we cannot simply be bystanders to this process of representative government; we must, as both citizens and as Catholics, be active participants at every level of society. "In the United States today," he says, "we often blame our social ills on our laws and our politicians. Although they are far from being blameless, we must not shy away from taking a hard look at ourselves to understand the real challenges facing our nation. We need virtuoso citizens. In Christian terms, we need disciples. More than that, we need citizen saints."

Although his approach is not complex or opaque, Stephen White's book is never-the-less not a quick and easy browse – rather, it will cause the reader to slow down, reread passages (and even whole pages), highlight text and underline and jot questions in the margin, and that is perhaps its greatest strength. To be fully appreciated, it's going to demand a little work. By the last page, not only will voting become (hopefully) a more thoughtful process for the reader, but the whole way we conduct ourselves as Catholic Americans will take on new meaning and new importance. As White says at the end, "There is nothing we can do to better serve and defend our democracy than to live every single day as good and faithful Catholics."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen P. White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D. C. A graduate of the St. Patrick's Evangelization School in London, England, he studied politics at the University of Dallas and philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

White's work focuses on applying Catholic social teaching to a wide spectrum of contemporary political and cultural issues. A regular contributor to CatholicVote.org, his work has also appeared in the National Review Online, Magnificat, the Catholic Herald (UK), TheCatholicThing.org and FirstThings.org.

Since 2005, White has been coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society, a three-week seminar on Catholic social teaching, which takes place in Krakow, Poland, and places emphasis on the thought of St. John Paul II.

"This book 'Red, White, Blue and Catholic' is written out of love for both Church and country," he says in his introduction. "This is a book written to argue and defend what it presumes at the outset: that being a good citizen is an integral part of Christian discipleship and that the greatest contribution we can make as citizens is to live our Catholic faith wholeheartedly and without reserve.'

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Miracle at Janet's Mountain

By Richard L. Hatin. West Virginia: Headline Books, Inc., 2015. $23.28 paperback, $4.99 Kindle or Nook. 448 pages.

When I first met the author of "Miracle at Janet's Mountain," he was doing a book signing and waving a light saber at the Barnes and Noble on Dorset Street in South Burlington. As it turned out, the store was hosting a special Star Wars promotion that day, and Hatin was more than willing to participate in the celebration, even though his newest work is a far cry from the adventures of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker.

To call "Miracle at Janet's Mountain" a feel-good book doesn't quite do it justice, although most readers will feel very good while reading it. As its title implies, it is about a miracle–several of them, in fact–and what can happen when people are brought face to face with a direct intervention from the divine.

There are some strong positives in this story. To begin with, the main character, Janet, the woman through whom the miracles take place, has Down syndrome. Though in her early 30s, she lives at home with her parents and works as a bagger at the local supermarket. When she is not helping her favorite cashier, Mrs. Wannamaker, Janet has a special place she goes to in the meadow adjacent to her family's home. A relatively small granite outcropping, it has never-the-less become known in the family as "Janet's Mountain," and it is where she loves to go to draw.

It doesn't take long for the miraculous events to begin. Janet has an encounter at her mountain with a "pretty lady" who looks vaguely familiar to her. Running back to the house, she retrieves a holy card with a picture of the Blessed Mother on it. Showing it to her new friend, Janet remarks that not only does she look like the lady on the card, but "You even look like the statue at church." Mary–for indeed, it is the mother of Jesus–then tells Janet that she has come to her because God has chosen her to do a very special job.

Suffice it to say that the story progresses from there. There are miracles and healings, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is how various people react to and are changed–or not–by their encounters with this remarkable young woman and what she allows God to do through her. The author has managed to include just about every segment of society we would expect to become involved in such an event. The Catholic Church and its representatives, for instance, have very different reactions to what has happened (along the way, the reader will no doubt learn something about the Church's protocol for dealing with such things.) The media, so prominent in every other part of our lives, is omnipresent here also–in fact, we get a glimpse of what Jesus' life might have looked like had he been born into a world of 24/7 cable news. People, both supporters and protesters, show up in the thousands, and a famous televangelist also becomes part of the story.

The only flaws are minor, grammatical ones (there are a number of places, for instance, where the author switches tenses from one sentence to the next, and some details are over-explained). But overall, both the story and the tone in which it is told reminded me very much of the late Father Joseph Girzone's "Joshua" series. If you are familiar with and liked those books, you will very likely enjoy this one as well.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Richard Hatin was born in Burlington, Vermont. He attended local elementary and high schools and graduated from St. Michael's College in Colchester in 1971, where he earned a bachelor's in English Literature.

In 1974, Hatin joined the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, working for the New England Office of Community Planning and Development. He retired from that position as Deputy Director in 2010, at which time he turned his attention to writing.

Since then, Hatin has published two other books of fiction in addition to "Miracle on Janet's Mountain." "Evil Agreement" was released in 2012, and "Deadly Whispers," which won an Honorable Mention at the Los Angeles, Great Southeast and San Francisco Book Festivals, was published in 2013.

"My first and greatest passion is to explore the eternal conflict of good versus evil," he said of his writing. "As a young child I was hooked on stories from the Bible. I was schooled early on that 'good always triumphs over evil'" although, as he also noted, "evil may lose in the end, but it sure can produce a great deal of pain until it's defeated."

Currently, Hatin lives in Hooksett, N.H. with his wife, Anne Marie. Together, they have three sons and three granddaughters.

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Word by Word: Slowing Down with the Hail Mary

A few months back a couple of Catholic friends of mine were discussing their experiences with different types of prayer. All was going along rather smoothly until one of them brought up the topic of Mary; at that point, opinions were exchanged and I was surprised to hear the conversation take a rather heated turn. The issue in dispute? The speed with which the Hail Mary should be said when praying the Rosary. One was inclined toward a rapid though prayerful recitation, while the other favored a slower, more meditative approach.

The Abbey: By James Martin SJ.

 

I have always enjoyed Jesuit Father James Martin's books as well as his commentaries on television, so it was surprising that when I picked up his latest work, "The Abbey," I did so with mixed emotions. It's not that I anticipated questioning the overall quality of his thoughts or his writing; rather, I was wondering whether he could successfully navigate the switch in genres. Father Martin, who has produced some very moving commentaries, retreats, reflections and memoirs, has now ventured into the world of novel writing, and I was curious to see if he could pull it off.

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