SPRED helps those with developmental disabilities grow in faith, find community - Arlington Catholic Herald
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SPRED helps those with developmental disabilities grow in faith, find community

Leslie Miller | Catholic Herald Staff Writer

Bob Luby, 13, brings up the offertory gifts during a Mass for SPRED friends and family April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Therese (at left) and Ryan Kent attend a Mass with other SPRED families April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Bishop Michael F. Burbidge gives the homily at a Mass for SPRED friends and families April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Luke (left) and Joe Sopata pray during a Mass for SPRED friends and families April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Luke Sopata (center) receives holy Communion from Bishop Michael F. Burbidge at a Mass April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, as Luke’s dad, Joe Sopata, looks on. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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SPRED friends and families gather for lunch after a Mass April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Bishop Michael F. Burbidge speaks with Peter Aziz (seated) as Peter’s twin brother Joseph Aziz, a SPRED volunteer, and their dad, Zayed Aziz (right) look on. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Nancy Emanuel, coordinator for Special Needs Ministries in the diocesan Office of Faith Formation, speaks during lunch after a Mass April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Bishop Michael F. Burbidge shares a high-five with SPRED friend Andrew Nguyen of Our Lady of La Vang Mission after a Mass April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, as Andrew’s mom, Trang Nguyen, looks on. JOE VITACCO | FOR THE CATHOLIC HERALD

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Bob Luby has found a group at church that helps him grow in his faith, where he feels welcomed and included. 

The tall, sandy-haired seventh grader remembers the exact date in 2018 when he first joined SPRED, short for Special Religious Development a group where people who have developmental disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome can come together with friends to discover God’s presence in their lives, and prepare to receive the sacraments. 

Bob, a member of the SPRED group at the Church of the Nativity in Burke, will be confirmed May 21 another date he readily shares. 

“SPRED is truly a gift to Bob and our entire family,” said his mom, Catherine Luby. “Feeling like a real member of a group is important,” she said, and SPRED allows him to learn about his faith “in a Catholic community that totally understands him.”

The Lubys were among dozens of families from SPRED groups across the diocese who participated in a Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge April 30 at Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, to mark the end of the SPRED year, September through April. 

Concelebrants were Father John O’Donohue, pastor of Holy Spirit, and Father Robert C. Cilinski, pastor of Nativity, two of the most active of about 10 SPRED groups in the diocese, along with All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas. The All Saints group is led by Nancy Emanuel, coordinator for Special Needs Ministries in the diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

The pandemic made gathering in person difficult for special needs ministries, but now that groups are starting back up, Emanuel said more volunteers are needed to bring SPRED to additional parishes. One of the goals in the new diocesan strategic plan is to make faith formation more accessible to those with special needs. “In theory, it should be at every parish,” she said, adding, “It’s really fun. Kids with disabilities are just kids, first and foremost.” 

An estimated 100 to 150 children and young adults currently participate in SPRED groups for ages 6-10, 11-16, 17-21 and 22 and over, but “we know we have more people who need our services,” Emanuel said. 

Developed in the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1966, the program now has locations worldwide that aim to make “ethereal spiritual concepts concrete,” through crafts, music, prayer and fellowship. There are 12 sessions a year and no grades or tests; participants are referred to as “friends,” not students. “They learn to know that Jesus loves them just as they are, and they are valuable to their parish community,” Emanuel said.

In his homily, Bishop Burbidge spoke about the importance of remembering “certain truths about our faith” such as that “all of us are created in the very image and likeness of God. Within all of us, the spirit of God lives and dwells. We are precious in his sight and he loves us, today and until the end. 

“My dear young friends, you show us his face. We are very proud of you, and we love you,” he told participants. Parents and catechists “show our young people the face of God” as well, he said. In January, Bishop Burbidge was named episcopal moderator for The National Catholic Partnership on Disability, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the meaningful participation of people with disabilities in church and society. 

During the proclamation of the Gospel (Jn 6: 16-21), in which the disciples are on a boat during a storm and become afraid, catechists reenacted the passage, rowing as if in a boat and raising their hands in fear, to assist participants who are nonverbal in visualizing the actions and emotions described. 

“We face some storms every day, and heavy burdens,” Bishop Burbidge said in his homily. “And we are no different from the disciples. We get afraid. But the truth of the Gospel is that during the storms, Jesus is not distant. He’s never very far from us. He will protect us and give us the strength we need. 

“Today, he helps us to remember we’re not alone. We’re in the boat together, helping each other and lifting up each other in faith,” said Bishop Burbidge, who stayed for lunch in the parish gym to talk with participants and families. 

“Bob loves SPRED and wants to go to everything,” said Catherine Luby, adding that it’s good for his three younger siblings, ages 10, 6 and 3, to see their big brother excited about church and involved at the parish.

She added that Father Cilinski and Nativity’s volunteer catechists “are tremendously giving and understanding. The amount of work and love they put into it is a wonderful gift.” 

Once participants complete the program and receive the sacraments, “it doesn’t mean they have to leave the SPRED program,” Emanuel said, noting that some participants at Holy Spirit have been together for more than 20 years. 

“They can continue with SPRED, sharing their faith together as a spiritual community. It’s a place to be themselves and relax.”

Find out more

To learn more about SPRED or volunteer, email [email protected] or call 703/224-1633.

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