Creating inclusive communities


The woman responsible for Special Religious Development in the Archdiocese of Glasgow explains the thinking behind it and the enrichment it offers to parish communities.

Inclusion is one of those words that is best understood in the negative.  We all have some experience of what it feels like not to be included, of feeling on the outside looking in.  Perhaps there was a time when we were not chosen for a team, not invited to a party, left out of a conversation, didn’t get a joke that had everyone else roaring with laughter, or when we were not being asked to do something that we longed to do.  We might recall too the gratitude we felt towards someone who noticed that we were left on the margins and took the trouble to draw us in and offered the extra help that we needed to take part.

One group of people who have more experience that most of what it is like not to be included are those who are affected by a learning or developmental disability.  Perhaps we might expect this to happen in secular society, but surely not in the church, not in our parish communities where we know ourselves to be brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, beloved children of God?  Sadly it is often the case that our brothers and sisters with learning disabilities do not feel themselves to be included in the life of the church and if they are not included, neither are their families.

Why should this be so?  Mainly it is a question of lack of awareness.  Sometimes the issue is that people with learning disabilities are not very visible in our parishes.  Families may find it hard to bring children with learning disabilities to Mass.  They may be wary of their child disturbing others or of being hurt by others’ reactions to them.  They are likely to have experienced situations in other places where they were told to keep a child under control.  It may only take a glance from someone for families to feel that it is easier for them to withdraw their child.

Bear in mind too that many children with learning disabilities have their educational needs met in non denominational special schools and so do not benefit from the link between the Catholic school and parish.  Some people, particularly those with autism, find it hard to cross the threshold into a new environment and may find the people, sights and sounds just too much.  Adults who live independently with support or in a group home may rely on a paid worker to bring them to Mass and parish events.  If that worker does not have sufficient understanding of the importance of the person’s faith life then coming to Mass may well be replaced by other activities that seem more ‘fun’.  In so many ways people with learning disabilities can become invisible in our parishes.

Being physically present, however, does not equate to inclusion.  Families have spoken of being left alone at parish events.  People may smile and say hello but they don’t linger; they don’t invite them to come and sit with them.  They are there but they are not included.

Some aspects of our liturgy may also be perceived as barriers to inclusion.  Our liturgies are full of long words and complex sentences that require a level of intellectual functioning to follow.  Even a short and simple homily will be too much for many.  Yet in our liturgy we also have so much to offer those for whom words are the least effective way of hearing the Good News.  Our use of ritual, symbol, gesture and quiet are things to which many people with learning disabilities instinctively relate.  We can capitalise on all the beauty that we have to ensure that these little ones are included

We must include them.  They have a right to be included.  Inclusion is not something nice that we do for them, because in the church there should be no them and us, only us.  Their inclusion is a matter of right and justice and has been affirmed by successive Popes.  Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Catechesi Tradendae (1979) clearly states that children who are, in the language of that time, ‘mentally handicapped’ have the right to know the mystery of faith. (#41)

The General Directory for Catechesis (1997) recognises that ‘every person, however limited is capable of growth in holiness’. (#189)

Pope Francis, speaking in October 2017 to delegates at a conference organised by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation, called on them to develop new forms of catechesis to meet the needs of people with disabilities so that ‘no one should feel like a stranger in their own house’.

There is a further reason why inclusion of our brothers and sisters with learning disabilities is important.  If one part of the body is absent from our parish communities then the body is incomplete.  These brothers and sisters of ours have their own special gifts to bring to the community and if they are absent, for whatever reason, the community is the poorer.

How is inclusion to be achieved?  Well, in five of our Scottish dioceses there is SPRED.

The SPRED method, developed in Chicago in the 1960’s and now in use worldwide, exists precisely so that no one should feel like a stranger in their own house.  The SPRED method offers parishes the means to welcome their parishioners who have learning disabilities and to include them in the sacramental, pastoral and social life of the parish.  In SPRED, we call these brothers and sisters of ours ‘friends’ because that is what Jesus called his disciples.  In small communities of faith within the parish those who need extra help to participate are given the support and friendship they need and they give it in their turn.  In these SPRED groups they are offered the opportunity to learn about and grow in faith using a catechesis that is adapted to their needs and their gifts.

The SPRED group is not something apart from the parish and it is never to be seen as a convenient place where those who need extra help may be safely left.  Each SPRED group is owned by its parish community and its goal is full inclusion in parish life.  SPRED staff recruit and train volunteers, and provide the materials and continuing formation that volunteers require; but it is parishioners who have responded to an invitation to be part of this special ministry who deliver the programme.  Priests in parishes, with their already demanding schedules, play a key role and often visit the SPRED group more often than might be expected, finding in the peace and joy of the group, something that refreshes their own spirit.  The SPRED group is a great example of fruitful collaboration between ordained and lay ministry.

The inclusion promoted by SPRED is not only for the friends.  SPRED catechists often find themselves being more fully involved in parish life.  It is not only the friends whose faith grows in the SPRED group.  Time and again catechists testify to the growth in faith that they have experienced through belonging to SPRED.  For the parish community in which SPRED exists, there is often a growing awareness of all those on the margins and of the gifts that they have to bring to the community.  At a Mass at which the SPRED community participates, parishioners are moved by the depth of silence that is achieved and by the reverence with which the friends participate in the liturgy.

Unfortunately there are not yet enough SPRED groups to accommodate all those who could benefit from belonging to SPRED, but there are still things that we can do to make our parishes inclusive of parishioners with learning disabilities and their families.  We can seek them out and find out what their aspirations are with regard to parish life.  Do they need to complete their sacramental initiation?  Do they have gifts and talents they can offer to the parish?  Do not assume that it is all one way.  We can ask them what help they need.  We can offer simple friendship, sitting next to them or inviting them to come for coffee after Mass.  And yes, we can contact our diocesan SPRED centre to talk about setting up a SPRED group.

SPRED is always in need of volunteers to help with our special ministry.  If you think that you could help we would be grateful to hear from you.  The most important quality you need is to be able to be a friend to someone.  It’s that simple.  If you would like to find out more, or if you would like to tell us about someone who could benefit from being part of SPRED please call the Glasgow SPRED office on 0141 770 5055 or email  If you are a parishioner in the Archdiocese of Glasgow you are welcome to our information evening at the SPRED Centre, 20 Robroyston Road, Glasgow G33 1EQ on Monday, 17th September at 7 p.m.

Lisbeth Raeside is the Director of SPRED Glasgow.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.