Distractions and Awkward Moments? Well yes, but what would Jesus do?
November 27, 2007
How should we deal with persons with disabilities? The same way we should deal with anyone—with care, concern, welcome and love.
Unquestionably, each type of disability brings with it particular circumstances and challenges which in their own way must be addressed, but ultimately every human being, created in God’s image and likeness, desires welcome and acceptance. While true of society in general, it should always be a reasonable expectation in the community of the Church.
We’ve added ramps to many church entrances to accommodate the elderly and those who are wheelchair bound. Some churches have even installed elevators or lifts. Most have also dedicated areas of special seating within. Those with poor sight or hearing appreciate effective sound systems. In some parishes, the Mass and other sacraments are interpreted in American Sign Language.
We’ve had special religious education programs in a number of parishes throughout the archdiocese for many years, and with the rise in cases on various parts of the autism spectrum, more parishes are regularly seeking assistance in beginning such a program.
Certain young adults the Special Ed program of my own parish (St. John the Evangelist, Bergenfield) stand out. A young man named Tommy often seems called to raise his arms like a director from the pew when the hymns are played at Mass.
While perhaps a distraction to someone who doesn’t know him, Tommy’s enthusiasm indicates that he is participating in the Mass and encouraging the rest of us to really get into the celebration, too.
Every time I see Walter, he asks me for a blessing—sometimes twice in the same conversation. While it seemed a bit awkward to me at first, after a while I realized that this was one way for both of us to be reminded that God is in our midst, and He can use anyone to bring out the good in another.
Sara is completely paralyzed. She understands and answers by blinking her eyes. Though she can’t physically enjoy our annual parish carnival, her mom always brings her in her wheelchair to take in the sights and sounds.
Being more of a listener than an initiator in a conversation, I often don’t approach her; or if I do, just say but a few words to her and her mom. I keep thinking I should be more welcoming, yet even just giving it some thought is a step closer for me to that goal.
Last fall, at a conference on Advocacy and Autism at Fordham University, New York, one of the speakers—herself an autistic college student—described the anguish of having super-sensitive hearing, so much so that every cell phone ring would seem even more aggravating to her than to the average person, and that a well-deserved round of applause was deafening and ear-splitting.
Listening to this young woman made me conscious of all the noises in a typical church setting, from full organ, to banging kneelers, to common prayer. How difficult it must be for some, and those who care for them, to fully worship in such an environment.
For some, the task of trying to accommodate every person with a disability may seem to be a daunting, full-time job—but isn’t that what Jesus would do? He brought an understanding of people to situations where others had prejudged them, due to illness, lifestyle or occupation. He encouraged people’s dinner invitations be extended to “the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame” (Lk 14:13).
Jesus invites us all to His eucharistic banquet. May we make every effort to thoughtfully and lovingly encourage anyone and everyone to take their rightful place in our parishes and in our lives.
Rev. Msgr. Richard J. Arnhols, a regular columnist for The Catholic Advocate—“Seeing & Believing”—is the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Bergenfield and the archdiocesan vicar for Pastoral Life.
This article first appeared in the February 21, 2007 issue of The Catholic Advocate, a publication of the Archdiocese of Newark, and is reprinted here with permission.
Photos were taken by Anne Masters during a Mass celebrating the diversity of the Body of Christ on the feast day of St. Christina the Astonishing, the patron saint of people with intellectual disabilities and their families. All liturgical ministers for this Mass except the priests either have a developmental disability or are related to someone with a developmental disability.
Read Part I of this 2-part series: "Spirit of Inclusion Inspires Families with Special Needs" by Anne Masters