The National Catholic Partnership on Disability offered a learning session this week about how to create an environment at Mass for persons with certain disabilities — a sensory-friendly Mass.
The training, offered on the feast of the Immaculate Conception when we recall that the Blessed Mother was conceived without sin, is a reminder that we can hurt our brothers and sisters when we fail to provide what they need.
Church leaders have been asked over and over again to meet “the people” where they are. That begins with consultation, personally finding out from the people what they need.
For people who live with disabilities — a word that attempts to encompass an array of situations — that will mean a great variety of things. For some it may mean a better wheelchair ramp, but for others it will be more complicated.
For example, Maureen Larison, the Archdiocese of Louisville’s consultant for adult formation and initiation, receives a steady stream of phone calls from parishes where faithful adults with intellectual disabilities reach adulthood and begin asking to receive Communion.
In her experience, the people in question could have received the Eucharist and other sacraments of initiation at a much younger age. But those in charge of their formation at the time didn’t know how to make the sacraments accessible, Larison said.
“We put up these barriers that don’t need to be there,” she said. “Life is hard enough for people with disabilities.”
It’s essential that discrimination against people with disabilities ends, Pope Francis said in his message for the Dec. 3 International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
Noting that the church’s teaching is clear, the Holy Father said too many people living with a disability lack spiritual care. He called this “the worst form of discrimination.”
Addressing persons with disabilities, he wrote, “The church is truly your home. We, all of us together, are the church, because Jesus chose to be our friend.”
He goes on to encourage people with disabilities to participate in the current synodal consultation process, sharing their experiences with church leaders.
He wrote, “each of you is called to make his or her own contribution to the synodal journey. I am convinced that, if it truly becomes a participative and inclusive ecclesial process, the church community will be genuinely enriched.”
For church leaders and parishioners who are not living with a disability, there is an opportunity to help in several ways.
First, meet people where they are. Take the first step to make a personal connection and find out what, if any, needs exist in your parish or community.
There may be a major need or small desires that would make a difference.
If you aren’t in a position to make decisions, you can be an advocate who can amplify the voices of people living with a disability and help remove barriers. You can also become a friend and accompany someone with a disability.
As we consider how we might provide assistance, we may find a very able minister or friend providing pastoral care in return.
Larison noted, “We all have disabilities and abilities. We are not one thing.”
In celebration of that notion, Vatican News launched a video campaign last week called #IAMCHURCH. In the one-minute and 30-second video, people with an array of disabilities share what the church and Jesus mean to them and how they use their gifts to serve God.
It’s worth a quick watch on YouTube and it may offer some insights into the gifts of people who live with disabilities.
Let’s pray that we can deconstruct barriers to spiritual care within our parishes and our diocese.