Catholic Education Partners

How an Exceptional Learner Can Change a Community

For the Better

By Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

Last month, an eight- year-old parishioner approached me with a startling question: “Why was my younger brother born with autism?” Through the grace of the moment, I answered, “Well, you know that my older brother was born with Down syndrome, and I believe that you and I will be asking God a similar question when we get to heaven. But, I can see that you love your brother a lot, am I right?” She nodded an emphatic “yes,” to which I said, “Well, you will never imagine how much your brother and your love for him will shape your life over the next 20 years or so.” A week later, I got this note: “Dear Archbishop Kurtz, Thank you so much for answering my question about my brother. I feel much happier about it. I think it made me understand my brother more. Thanks again. Karina.”

This story illustrates the major theme in my June keynote for the NCEA Conference on the Exceptional Learner. My older brother George had a mighty influence on my life. Often, our focus on children like my brother or Karina’s brother naturally considers the challenges of attending to their learning and formation needs. No mistake – reaching out to an exceptional learner brings challenges. And, while accepting an exceptional learner into your school community requires careful educational planning, I would like to propose important and somewhat intangible benefits often forgotten. These benefits result from the effect of such encounters on your school, parish and community – in other words, how the community changes for the better. 

Growing Up Together

Let me tell you how Georgie transformed a rectory into a home. In September 1989, our mother died, and I became George’s legal guardian. I was a pastor of a parish and, with the bishop’s permission, my brother moved into the rectory. He transformed our life so quickly that I wrote an essay for the local Catholic paper, later published in Catholic Digest in September of 1990 – “The Joy of Georgie” – about the way my brother changed the rectory into a home. On the surface, this transformation involved his nicknames for us and his playfulness. But something deeper was happening that I described in the article: “Recently, after celebrating a Mass for our dear mother, I must have looked a little down to (George). He gave me a pat on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry. Mom is in heaven. You have me.’” With that small gesture entered a quality of life that every rectory needs.

Let me tell you more about George’s upbringing. Born on June 7, 1941, five years before me, George’s Down syndrome was not initially diagnosed. Since special education did not exist, he was accepted with all my siblings into St. Mary’s Slovak Catholic School in my hometown of Mahanoy City, Pa.

George attended St. Mary’s for seven years before the school closed due to low enrollment. My mom called his first seven years the blessings of “discipline’ – what today we would call “socialization.” Even though the principal had concerns, our pastor insisted that he stay.

When our school closed, I was going into fourth grade. George never went to school again, but I remember how my friends and I took to teaching George whatever we were learning at school. He was included in all our activities, which had to be adapted a bit. When we played baseball on the street, he would swing the bat level with the ground so he could connect with the ball that was rolled to him by neighborhood friends. He and I remained very close and shared vacations once I became a deacon in 1971. We continued to vacation together for the rest of his life.

When mom died, he came to live with me in the rectory and began working with the maintenance man and handling the collections on Sunday – quickly becoming the center of parish life. When we left for vacation, parishioners would say, “Father, we will miss you, but we are really going to miss Georgie!”

George likely was the one through whom Jesus called me to be a priest. All of my family experienced a life-changing focus on priorities: we valued what was most important, and this always seemed to bring out the best in each of us. 

Church Teaching

Catholic teaching on care for exceptional learners has been clear for some time. The 1965 Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimus educationis) states that all children “ virtue of their dignity as human persons, have an in- alienable right to education ... adapted to their ability” (n.1). This quote rightly addresses the benefit to the child and not the community.

The 1978 Pastoral Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities hinted that proper attention to the exceptional learner may result in a greater effect on the wider community: “Once healed by Jesus, the person disabled becomes a witness for Christ to others” (n. 4). Even more explicitly, Pope Benedict XVI offered these comments in 2008 in a blessing of youth with disabilities: “God has blessed you with life, with differing talents and gifts. Through these, you are able to serve him and society in various ways. While some people’s contributions seem great and others’ more modest, the witness value of our efforts is always a sign of hope for everyone.” Pope Francis continues this theme by promoting a culture of encounter, which leads me to identify pastoral principles at work in this discussion. 

Pastoral Principles at Work

In June 2017, the U.S. bishops approved and endorsed a revised set of Guidelines for The Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities. (Special thanks to the National Catholic Partners on Disability and Cardinal DiNardo for introducing and working on the changes!) See the text at Besides providing practical recommendations, four principles of pastoral care are important:

  1. Always see the person first (encounter and accompany). The revised guidelines for reception of sacraments by persons with disabilities emphasize baptism rather than the disability.

  2. Stress the gifts that emerge rather than the differences that are present, and consider how the gifts of the exceptional child can change the school for the better. The world is too full of examples that are technocratic, super utilitarian and narcissistic. Take the example of the horrible way in which a mother bearing a child with Down syndrome is presented only with the burdens this child will bring and is not encouraged to seek advice from families, like mine, who have experienced a child with Down syndrome and his or her gifts. How marvelous is this shift of seeing the gifts as a form of charism – God’s gift to an individual for the sake of the wider community. I can only recall that emotional scene in which George touched my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. Mom is in heaven. You have me.”

  3. Don’t limit God’s gifts. There is a prophetic role for the Church and for Catholic schools to be sentinels (watchmen) on the lookout for God’s gifts. Catholic schools can and should be the sentinels for our culture.

  4. Bring a healthy realism to the classroom. Dignity requires respect that is not paternalistic or condescending, even with a sweet voice; expect to benefit from the encounter and friendship. Each child is different. I recall detesting times when Georgie was lumped together with a group. The pithy saying, sometimes attributed to the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, says it well: “Once you label me, you negate me.” Meeting real people helps counter these labels.


Rightly foreshadowing good things to come, the 1978 U.S. Bishops’ statement on people with disabilities, said: “We look to the future with what we feel is a realistic optimism. ... No one would deny that every man, woman and child has a right to develop his or her potential to the fullest. With God’s help and our own determination, the day will come when that right is realized in the lives of all people with disabilities” (n. 35). I would add: and our efforts toward this vision will change our communities! Every child deserves to experience what Karina and I experienced in the lives of our exceptional brothers – our lives changed for the better. 

Originally published in NCEA's "Momentum" Winter 2017 edition, which can be found here.