Then, this week, the family received a phone call from St. Aloysius Church in Jackson, N.J., which they have attended for years.
“They said there is no way he can make his Communion,” Nicole LaCugna told News 12 New Jersey. “He doesn’t understand what the Holy Communion is about.”
In a Tuesday Facebook post that quickly went viral, Jimmy LaCugna wrote that the family was told that “since Anthony is unable to determine right from wrong due to his disability they feel he is not up to the ‘benchmark required to make his communion.’” Calling the church’s choice “very hard and upsetting to comprehend,” he added that his son “wouldn’t even be able to create a sin because he is one of the sweetest and innocent little boy someone would ever meet.”
St. Aloysius is now rethinking its policies. In a Wednesday statement, the parish said that “new information has come to light” indicating that children with intellectual and cognitive disabilities “should be presumed to have an inner spiritual relationship with God.”
But it remains unclear whether Anthony will be given the opportunity to receive his First Communion in April. Nicole LaCugna told the Asbury Park Press that even if the church reverses its decision, she doesn’t want her son receiving the sacrament from a priest who discriminated against him.
In addition to being fully nonverbal, Anthony also has severe apraxia, a neurological disorder that means he’s often unable to perform movements on command despite understanding the instructions, his family said. Both conditions presented a challenge, because preparing for First Communion traditionally involves taking part in the sacrament of reconciliation and confessing one’s sins to a priest.
LaCugna told New Jersey 101.5 that she set up a meeting with the church to discuss alternatives for her son. The parish suggested using flashcards so that Anthony could physically demonstrate that he understood what was considered a sin, she said. But that wasn’t a realistic prospect.
“Anthony cannot decipher a sin versus a non-sin,” LaCugna told the station. “He doesn’t have the receptive ability to say the one in your left hand — even pointing — is the sin. The one in your right hand is not.”
Church administrators promised to get in touch with the Catholic Diocese of Trenton about other options, LaCugna said. But they didn’t come up with a way to accommodate Anthony. Instead, St. Aloysius informed the family that the parish didn’t believe that the second-grader was ready for First Communion.
“My heart shattered,” LaCugna told the New York Post. “My first thought was, how do you take a child who was one of God’s children and say that he is not good enough, basically, to be making the sacrament?”
After Jimmy LaCugna expressed his frustration on Facebook, the family received an outpouring of support, and complete strangers invited Anthony to worship at their churches instead. Many parents of autistic children described having similar experiences at their own churches or synagogues, while others pointed the LaCugnas to parishes that welcome people with intellectual disabilities to receive Communion. By early Friday morning, the post had been shared nearly 10,000 times, and had close to 4,000 comments.
“People that we don’t even know stepped up before our own church stepped up, so, to us, that’s amazing,” Nicole LaCugna told News 12 New Jersey.
As many commenters pointed out, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states that people with disabilities “have a right to participate in the sacraments as fully as other members of the local ecclesial community.” Those who have “profound intellectual disabilities” and are unable to experience contrition may still take part in reconciliation, the conference says.
The guidelines also state that to receive Holy Communion, Catholics must be able to distinguish the sacred bread and wine from ordinary food, “even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally.” Pastors are encouraged to consult with parents about whether a child is ready, and “cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the Catholic to receive the sacrament.”
The Rev. John Bambrick, the pastor at St. Aloysius, told the Asbury Park Press on Thursday that after initially denying Anthony the chance to take part in his First Holy Communion this spring, the church had learned that all baptized Catholics had the right to receive all sacraments. But he didn’t walk back his decision, and indicated that a delay might still be necessary, the paper reported.
In a statement, St. Aloysius said that church leaders had been “researching how we could best assist the most profoundly disabled,” and that “new information has shed light on ways to further adapt our preparations and reception for children with severe cognitive and developmental issues.” Under the latest guidance from canon lawyers, theologians and Pope Francis, “the basic concept is the child should be presumed to have an inner spiritual relationship with God and this would be sufficient in these particular cases,” the parish said.
The LaCugnas aren’t satisfied with that response.
“It doesn’t say Anthony can do his Communion this year,” Jimmy LaCugna told WABC. “It doesn’t say they will work with us.”