Sunday, April 24, 2016

A Special Community: All Are Welcome to Celebrate in Their Own Way

Yesterday, in my role as diocesan contact for disabilities, I had the privilege of joining one of our local parishes for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of their special needs religious education program and the first communion of three young people in the program. Rarely have I felt such a sense that everyone at a Mass belonged to a large and diverse family, all united by one goal - the love of special children. This unity of purpose certainly permeated the celebration of the liturgy.

The opening procession was a delightfully messy affair that included all the children in the program and their parents. Some kids walked in on their own, others with the help of a parent's guiding hands firmly on their shoulders. Some even wore noise-canceling headphones because of their sensitivity to noise.

As the choir and the rest of the assembly sang the opening "Song of the Body of Christ" the children and young adults shuffled, marched and were gently prodded into place in the pews. "We come as your people. We come as your own, United with each other, love finds a home." Indeed.

The pastor preceded his formal greeting with a shout of joy.  "Whoo-eee!  Fifty years! That's a long time!" What followed was a beautiful, sincere celebration.  The liturgy was simple and heartfelt and those who took roles in the ministries of the Mass were competent, or assisted in whatever ways they needed to be competent. There was no hesitation. These are people who do this often, and they do it well.

The altar server performed his duties reverently and admirably. The first reader signed as the interpreter read.  Those who read intercessions did so with little prompting or need for assistance. The petite young woman with Down Syndrome who served as an Extraordinary Ministry of the Eucharist was competent and confident.

Everything was interpreted in sign language for the benefit of the deaf, who sat in a special section. There were only a few children who shouted out or got away from their parents.  On the contrary - all of them knew exactly what to do at Mass. (In fact, most were better behaved and more engaged in the Mass than typical children their age!) The three who received their First Communion had obviously been well-prepared.

Special young people indeed. These live with Down Syndrome, Autism and many other varieties of disability, but there was no lack of ability to celebrate the liturgy. Those who could sing did. The deaf signed their responses.  Applause, when called for, was expressed by waving their hands in the air.  "Alleluia" was two index fingers crooked and twirled in the air. At the end of the Mass, all the young people gathered in the sanctuary to offer their own praise by joining in gestures to an upbeat version of "How Great Thou Art"

Through it all, there were the parents. From the moment they firmly guided their children into church, it was clear that not only did they love these kids and want them to be a part of the community of faith, but that they shared their lives of  joy and challenges with this community. There was a sense of purpose and solidarity. None of these families have an easy life, but it was not hard to believe that dealing with their challenges together has made them stronger. This is a beautiful community with staying power. Yesterday, they brought all that to the altar and offered their thanks and praise to the God who sustains them, It could not have been more powerful.

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