Spirit of Inclusion Inspires Families with Special Needs
November 27, 2007
A family is at Mass, including their son with autism. They are approached by the usher and asked to take their child and leave. A family friend seeks out parishes that would be more welcoming.
In another church, another mother turns to the person next her to offer the Sign of Peace during Mass. “I don’t think so,” says the woman. “He,” she says pointing to her son with autism, “doesn’t belong here.”
For families living with disabilities every day, the frustration and hurt from rejection can be overwhelming. This sting is especially painful when that rejection comes from their faith-based community.
As Catholics, we acknowledge that all people are made in the image of God, and further, that all baptized people share in the life and mission of the Church. However, when full participation within the Body of Christ is inhibited or prevented, the Church is incomplete and we, as a people, are diminished.
The Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has challenged all people of good will, not just Catholics, to re-examine attitudes and practices that marginalize or minimize the humanity of people with disabilities. (See the Pastoral Statement of the USCCB on People with Disabilities (1978).)
In this statement, the bishops declared that including people with disabilities is more than a nice thing to do, and that it is a matter of justice, not charity. Justice conforms to truth and what is correct. Charity is typically understood as something done for people in need who are vulnerable by people who have more and are in positions of power.
Although it is certainly nice to help people in need, it is important to realize that each person, regardless of ability or disability, has unique gifts to offer our Church and is equally a part of the Body of Christ.
Throughout the Gospel accounts, we see Jesus reaching out to people at the margins of his society—people who were sick, blind, or deaf. Jesus frequently challenged the power structures of His day and now challenges us to re-imagine how to live out our Baptism and to be Eucharist in our world. This was the reason Pope John Paul II declared a Year of the Eucharist, saying the authenticity of our Eucharistic liturgies would be judged by how well we live what we proclaim.
Although many people with disabilities live full and active lives, their participation in the Church—its life and the liturgy—is often restricted. To fully embrace our Baptism and to be Eucharist in our world, we must acknowledge and encourage the right of people with disabilities to participate fully in the life of the Church. This begins by ensuring that our sacramental celebrations are open to the full, active and conscious participation of people with disabilities as each is able. It is also important to remember each person, regardless of ability or disability, has unique gifts to offer and that there are many ways to contribute to the life of the Church.
There are different reasons why people with disabilities might be excluded. One is the assumption that he or she can’t really benefit from being included in the Mass or religious education, because he or she doesn’t really understand what is happening. Another assumption is that the behavior can be distracting to other people—and it is certainly valid to be concerned with the needs of the whole community.
The following two examples may serve as a helpful response to address these concerns. First, a parish teaches about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and they sing a simple song to reinforce all the different lessons they learn. There is a young boy diagnosed on the autism spectrum, whose behavior presented such challenges that he wore a weighted vest to help manage it. During the time together, he never participated in the activities with the other children. He simply lay on the floor, seemingly in his own world. One day his mother was very sad. This young boy, who simply lay on the floor not interacting with the other children, went to his mother and said: “Don’t worry. The Good Shepherd will take care of you.”
The second example involves Ben, an eight-year-old boy with autism, who has been attending Mass every week with his family since he was five. After learning what he could about the Catholic faith from his family and from participating at Mass, Ben joined a second grade religious education group in his parish this year.
Although Ben attends a special school for children with autism, he is able to be with this group of second graders preparing to celebrate Eucharist for the first time in April. He has had support from his school to learn needed behaviors for Mass and his parish community has been very supportive.
Ben enjoys being with the other children—so much that the threat of not being able to go to religious education is sufficient to keep his behavior in Mass on task. Ben is not only aware of the other children around him, but he clearly enjoys being with them and feels welcomed by them.
When families with special needs are included they feel affirmed, accepted and valued, but they also experience this as part of what it means to be a Catholic.
Usually, when communities are not welcoming, it is not from a lack of desire, but rather from a lack of understanding or knowing what to do. Those situations are the easiest to face, because providing information yields results quickly. The more challenging situations are those in which hearts and minds are closed to what we are called to be as Christians.
Information alone is not enough. To open hearts and minds, we must all be willing to open ourselves up to what we are called to be. It is not a matter of changing Church teaching because the teaching is already there. It is more a matter of each of us being willing to recognize new possibilities of celebrating God in our world.
This involves recognizing the gifts that God has given to each person and how each gift, no matter how seemingly simple or inconsequential, is important. When we exclude any person because we think he or she is not able, then we are excluding Christ.
Anne Masters, M.A., is the director of the archdiocesan Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, an office within the vicariate for Pastoral Life.
This article first appeared in the February 21, 2007 issue of The Catholic Advocate, 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 II of this 2-part series: "Distractions and Awkward Moments? Well yes, but what would Jesus do?"