Learning from Special Needs Students

For this week’s reflection, I would like to share with you a letter I wrote to my catechists and parishioners this last weekend. I took the time to pray about our upcoming school year and God spoke to me through a series of wonderful memories of my time serving special needs children. From this set of life-changing experiences, I try to encourage our catechists and parishes on how we can lovingly hand on the faith to our future generations with many challenges facing us. Perhaps only some might be able to relate to it; but no matter where we are in our faith journey, let us try our best to share the faith lovingly and genuinely, learning from the Lord and those who are around us with radical trust and humility.

My dear catechists and parishioners,

When I was studying theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Texas. A classmate, Father Chris Becerra, and I decided we need a change of pace from our usual studies on the weekend. On top of our ministerial assignments that come from the seminary, we volunteered at Our Lady of Lourdes, a big Vietnamese Catholic parish, teaching religious education classes. We were given normal classes in the first few years. However, in our last two years, we were given a few special needs students to teach outside of our normal assigned classes. Those two years were a very big, eye-opening learning experience for both of us!

We learned to prepare our weekly lessons as catechists and teachers. We planned in-class activities well from experiences. However, none of that really mattered when we had to teach special needs children about the sacraments! It was challenging trying to teach these students about basic tenets of faith, especially for them to have a basic understanding of the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist that they were going to receive. We were given some materials geared toward special needs children, but we were not given proper instructions on how to apply them. Unfortunately, special needs children are often forgotten in the Vietnamese community because many are ill-equipped with the challenges (as in our case). To say the least, teaching them was really challenging because there were days that they did not want to learn and would throw tantrums. There were days that they were not interested in anything and we had to learn to let go of our plans to accompany them as best as we can. Many days just consisted of walking around the grounds, trying to teach them a few lines of the common prayers, or doing repeated activities so they can understand about the Real Presence. We were doubtful at times how much they comprehended and whether they were somewhat ready, at least able to minimally understand and receive the Sacraments. There was a lot of trusts and letting go in the process!

However, on the day when they received their Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Eucharist, I began to realize and noticed that they were the ones who taught me all along. I learned so much about loving and forming disciples instead of trying to pervade information and completing the required lessons. I learned to trust in God and His love for the children instead of what they need to know in order to pass the preparation course. I learned so much about letting the children’s genuine desire and love for the Sacraments be the gauge of our efforts instead of what they needed to learn. I learned that the Lord is able to reach out, speak to, and transform hearts in His divine providence — in His own way and time — and all He ever needs from us was to be present as His instruments of loving care. I learned in those two years teaching those students about what it means and takes to hand on the faith more than I learned in my own regular assigned classes and my graduate courses in theology and ministry at the seminary. I learned that those children taught me more than I taught them, for they introduced, formed, and allowed me to see, understand, and embrace what it meant to teach the faith.

I know in our own religious education programs at the three parishes, many catechists desired to finish the assigned curriculum. There have been many talks by many famous and influential experts on how to better form our children and young people in the faith, to captivate their attention, and to have a better retention rate. Nevertheless, this particular experience taught me that it is not about what we do but how we can be present, genuinely form and hand on the faith to our children by being there for them. At the end of the day, knowing more is important so they can be prepared for the future and be grounded in their relationship with God, more knowledgeable of their faith as to better discern the right from wrong, and love their Catholic faith in all its richness; however, we cannot forget that it is God who is at work in them just as He is at work in us in His own divine providence. We desire result and control, to gauge our effectiveness in catechesis and religious education, the formation of moral and faith-centered values, but many of life’s natural elements are out of our control. We can only do our best to instill within our own children the desire to seek God, teach them to love Him, instill in them at best as we can to desire His will for them, but we have to allow God to be God in His own way and time. All we can ever do as educators, catechists, the faithful, or clergy in the Church is to genuinely give the gift of ourselves to others, share with them what we believe in a loving and caring way, and create an environment for them to grow and mature as they are able.

Some will lose their ways, others might not understand, and many will not get it all, but that is fine! The Church will always be here for them just as she has been here for us. We might be smaller in size. We might be rejected by more people. We will be abandoned by our younger people because they do not see us as being appealing, attractive, or an essential part of their lives…and that is fine! We can only try our best to form and hand on the faith as we are able and we leave it to them to receive as they are able. This requires radical trust and a lot of letting go of what we are so used to in a corporate, structure, goals-centered, agenda-driven society. We are called to be the Church, the refuge of sinners, field hospital and help for Christians in times of hurt, rehabilitation point for those who want to change their lives, and the holy, loving, genuine place where people come to seek and worship God.

We teach our children and young people much more than what we can in religious education classes. We can teach them by offering Masses well, pray together as a parish and individual families, and how we care for one another. There will be rejections, people who will sometimes be lost and do not appreciate what we do, but that is fine. The Lord Jesus Christ experienced that in His own days, too! We can only be genuine, transparent, and humble, but most important of all, trusting that God is in control. He will lead everyone to Him in His own providential time and plan. We, as the Church, can only be here for those who seek Him, living out our baptismal and particular vocations, trusting in Him, and never cease to care and pray for one another. May the Lord bless us and our children, and let us try our best to lead everyone to Him with genuine care and love, especially the least of our brothers and sisters.

Sincerely in Christ,


Rev. Fr. Khoi V. Tran
Parochial Administrator