Connecting young adults with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) strengthens communities — including parishes looking to reach a new generation of faithful.

That’s according to several speakers at a recent workshop on creating a “Ministry of Belonging,” which was hosted by the archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate (OPD) and moderated by director and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Schipani.

The March 20 webinar featured presentations from two organizations with extensive experience in fostering mutual relationships between those with and without IDD. Founded in 1964, L’Arche – an international federation of more than 154 communities and 19 projects in 38 countries – enables individuals to learn from one another through shared living arrangements. Best Buddies, established in 1987, promotes the full inclusion of those with IDD through one-to-one friendships, workplace integration, leadership development and communal housing.


A key message of the seminar – which was followed up by an April 14 online listening session – also forms the theme of an April 25 liturgy that will be celebrated by Archbishop Nelson Pérez at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul: the importance of honoring the gifts of persons with disabilities.

Some 6.5 million people in the U.S. and an estimated 200 million worldwide have an intellectual disability, yet much of their potential goes unrecognized and unappreciated, say advocates.

“People with disabilities are too often seen as recipients of charity,” said Parker Davis, digital communications manager for L’Arche USA. “The beauty of L’Arche is that people begin to discover that every single human being has a gift to contribute … and what people discover in L’Arche is that they’re capable of giving so much.”

L’Arche volunteer Therese Deslippe said living with her housemate Adam “helped transform (her) mindset from seeing people with disabilities as a blank slate, or simply people ready to be friends with her.”

Speaking from the L’Arche home in Portland, Oregon, Deslippe said that early in her tenure she had visited Adam at his workplace, where he was a popular employee.

“You couldn’t make it more than 50 feet without (someone) stopping to talk with him,” she recalled.

During the tour Adam gave her, she realized “he already had a community” that valued his “contributions and presence,” and as a result, Deslippe derived a greater “sense of belonging in (her) own life.”

That inclusion is also evident at Adam’s parish, where he ensures the Book of the Gospels is properly placed after the celebrant or deacon has finished proclaiming the Scripture.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Kathleen Schipani, director of the archdiocesan Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate (top right), led participants in a March 20 webinar on creating a pastoral “Ministry of Belonging” for young adults with and without intellectual disabilities. (YouTube/Sister Kathleen Schipani)

Such pastoral involvement is vital, said Mary Eileen Baltes of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Doylestown.

Baltes said her daughter Mary Rose, a senior at Central Bucks West High School, has “so enjoyed being a full participant” in the Our Lady of Mount Carmel youth ministry program.

“Her involvement has provided her a consistent opportunity for faith formation, service, socialization and fun,” said Baltes.

In the coming years, the parish will remain “the one constant” in Mary Rose’s life “as she ages and we age, and as the ultimate happens to us,” said Baltes, who was laughingly reprimanded by her daughter for speaking of getting old.

“Mom, don’t mention that on Zoom,” said Mary Rose. “Please.”

Baltes added that she and her husband Mike are looking to build a “culture of support” within the parish that spans youth to senior adulthood.


Begin by asking pastors how IDD youth can contribute, said webinar participant Katie Keating, whose son Luke is a cross-bearer at her parish’s liturgies.

“It’s been such a gift for him, for our family and for the congregation,” she said, noting that “gentle integration into parish life” from an early age can eventually build groups and more formally structured outreaches.

Permanent deacon Michael Cushing and his wife Donna – parents of 21-year-old Cara, who has Down syndrome — highlighted the adult and parent support groups available at their parish, St. Jude in Chalfont.

Schools can also reinforce a sense of belonging that naturally overflows into parish life. Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor, along with several area Catholic colleges (such as Villanova University, St. Joseph’s University and Gwynedd Mercy University), feature Best Buddies chapters — which have become even more relevant due to COVID-related feelings of isolation, said Milli Protheroe, director of state operations and programs for the organization’s Pennsylvania division.

“(COVID) is the great equalizer,” she said. “We’re all feeling disconnected … right now, so it’s a really good time to talk about connection. … Now is the time to extend yourself in your personal life, your parish, your workplace.”

“We break down the barrier between the person and the disability,” said Andrew Harbaugh, program manager for Best Buddies Pennsylvania. “A lot of the friends that we have matched are keeping each other sane through this time.”

To create a ministry of belonging for younger members, parishes should aim to “dream big” and “start small,” said Davis.

Ensuring access, inclusive programming, leadership opportunities and person-to-person encounters are essential, he said, along with committing to listening, patience and consistency.

“Everyone has gifts to share, and we are particularly committed to making these gifts known in our society,” said Davis. “When people with disabilities take their place at the table, it helps contribute to a more just and compassionate community.”


The annual archdiocesan Mass for Persons with Disabilities, sponsored by the Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate, will take place on April 25 at 3 p.m. at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul and will be livestreamed at Archbishop Nelson Pérez will be the principal celebrant and homilist, and an outdoor reception will follow the Mass. 

For more information, and to RSVP for the Mass with the number of attendees and accommodations needed, visit or call 215-587-3530.