I sat there at Mass two pews behind a family who had a little boy with autism. His parents struggled with him as he moved around the pew, played with the books and even occasionally cried out. During the homily he began to recite the alphabet, not loudly, but loud enough for those around him to hear. His parents became quite flustered. I longed to say something to comfort and welcome them, but they were a few rows ahead of me, and I didn’t want to make a scene. I resolved that I would encourage them during the Sign of Peace; however, I never got the opportunity, because after about 10 minutes, they left the church looking embarrassed and defeated.
What breaks my heart about this situation is that my parish is an incredibly welcoming community, but past experiences prevented this family from encountering that sense of belonging. A large percentage of Catholic families with members with disabilities have felt forced to abandon weekly Mass attendance due to stigma and the difficulties associated with unpredictable behavior during the liturgy. We, as Church, are called to create a culture of meaningful participation and inclusion for persons with disabilities and their families. Unless we make intentional and well-communicated efforts to embrace these individuals and their families, they will never know that they are an important and necessary part of the Body of Christ.
To better welcome ALL people to the Lord’s Table, the Office for Persons with Disabilities of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has begun hosting Sensory-Friendly Liturgies during regularly scheduled Mass times at several parishes. These liturgies specifically cater to persons with sensory sensitivities by using lower lights, softer music, low-gluten hosts, and pictorial missals. We encourage the use of the Children’s Lectionary for its more literal interpretation of the readings and suggest shorter and more literal Homilies to meet the needs of persons with neurodiversity. All of these modifications are incredibly important, but for the families who attended, the most significant accommodation is the elimination of any stigma that they previously encountered. One participant said, “It was so wonderful to feel like we weren’t a burden, distraction or inconvenience.”
In order to assist parishes in creating these opportunities to embrace the entire Body of Christ, the Office for Persons with Disabilities has created a variety of resources which are available on our website at Sensory-Friendly Mass – Archdiocese of Cincinnati (catholicaoc.org). Several Dayton parishes have already committed to regularly scheduled sensory-friendly Masses, and our goal is to expand the ministry to all the deaneries in the Archdiocese. We are hopeful that these liturgies will be something that inspire not just Catholic Churches, but all place of worship to consider the importance of intentional welcome for persons with disabilities and their families.
By: Noelle Collis-DeVito, Associate Director for the Office for Persons with Disabilities for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati