TYLER – The first diocesan Mass for those with special needs celebrated March 12 was simply that – the first.
Linda Khirallah Porter, director of the diocesan Office for Faith Formation, said the Mass, celebrated by Bishop Joseph E. Strickland in the Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul in Tyler, was the first of what she hopes will be an annual event as part of the diocese’s continuing efforts to reach out to and embrace those with special needs.
“These people, the children and adults and their families, are part of our parishes,” Porter said. “Just because we may not see them at Mass doesn’t mean they’re not there. They are. And if the parish church can’t be a place to say we love you and we welcome you and we’re not whole without you, then what are we doing?”
Bishop Strickland celebrated a Mass modified especially for worshippers with special needs. The readings and prayers were short, the homily was brief, and the songs had simple refrains that were easily echoed back. In all, said Porter, it took about half an hour.
Yet even so, “it was the Mass,” she said. “It was the celebration of the sacrifice of Christ. And that is something these families understand maybe better than anyone else.”
These families live that sacrifice every day.
“When you see them come into the church, with the wheelchairs and the breathing tubes and the oxygen tanks, when you see the families of autistic children or children with cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome or Tourette’s syndrome, you realize that this is their life, every minute of every day,” she said. “They live the cross. They live the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. They are Christ to each other.”
The Mass was the latest step in the diocese’s evolving efforts to develop catechesis for those with special needs. Porter’s office has conducted a number of educational sessions to raise awareness of the special needs population and to encourage and train parishes to offer such catechesis.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception offers such a class, and Porter said she hopes other parishes will follow suit.
“I know for a lot of people it’s uncomfortable,” she said. “Most of us aren’t trained in special education. This is sort of a whole new, mysterious world for us. And it’s kind of frightening. Most people don’t have experience with children or adults who have special needs. But if we’re going to be people of mercy, if we’re going to be pro-life, then we have to do this. These children and adults may be physically disabled or mentally disabled, but they’re not spiritually disabled. They are children of God, made in his image and likeness, just like everyone else, and, as the Church, we have to help them develop their relationship with Jesus Christ.
“This is the mission of the Church,” Porter said.
The Mass provided an opportunity for the Church to show herself in all her wounded glory.
Families came from Tyler, from Longview and Lufkin, from Gilmer, Pittsburg, Lindale, and Mount Pleasant.
“Bishop Strickland was wonderful,” Porter said. “He made the families feel welcome from the beginning. He put them at ease, telling them not to worry if there was noise, if anyone got up and started moving around. And that was so important, to have that kind of acceptance and understanding from him. That’s where it has to start.”
Father Hank Lanik, cathedral rector, and Father Freddy Celano, parochial vicar of St. Michael Church in Mount Pleasant, concelebrated with Bishop Strickland.
“It was so moving to see Bishop Strickland and Father Hank and Father Freddy take Communion to those who couldn’t come up, and to bless those who couldn’t receive,” Porter said. “Yes, there was noise and there was movement, but there was also reverence. People cried. I know I teared up.”
Porter’s grandson Jordan was one of those for whom the Mass was intended. Jordan, 20, is profoundly autistic, and Porter’s efforts to catechize him have informed her work in the diocese.
“We have to be open to new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing and thinking about things,” she said. “When Jordan sees a crucifix, he says, ‘hurt.’ That, to him, is what he crucifix is. And he’s right. It’s Christ hurting for us, dying for us. And when he saw the crucifix during the Mass and said, ‘hurt,’ I got tears in my eyes. I knew he understood at least that much.”
Porter said she hopes parishes will look upon the diocesan Mass as a model and begin to offer their own for those with special needs in their communities.
“It doesn’t have to be weekly,” she said. “A monthly Mass would be good. But we need to be doing something. We need to look at our faith formation classes and even at the physical accessibility of our churches. What kind of help and support can we offer to our families?”
Porter’s office offers a number of resources, among them copies of Opening Doors of Welcome and Justice to Parishioners with Disabilities: A Parish Resource Guide. The book is put out by the USCCB, and, said Porter, is “an excellent resource tool.”
She has enough copies for each parish in the diocese to have one.
“This is how we put our faith into motion,” Porter said. “If we say we’re pro-life, then we have to be pro-life from cradle to the tomb and at every step in between. And that means embracing everything that looks odd or unnatural or not neuro-typical. When we do something like this, we are saying that we are pro-life. When we welcome this child or this adult who is broken and wounded, physically or emotionally or neurologically, we’re saying this is still a child of God, made in the image and likeness of God. And I think sometimes we forget that this is part of it, too. They need to feel like they’re not alone. These families need to feel welcome, need to feel part of the community, part of the parish.”
Porter said she saw that on March 12, before the Mass began.
“It was one of those days we’ve had where the rain was just pelting down,” she said. “Father Hank went immediately into solution mode and started calling for umbrellas. Then he and Bishop Strickland went out to the cars, with umbrellas, and began escorting the families inside. It sounds like such a little thing, but when you’re talking about wheelchairs and equipment, getting into church in the rain becomes a major undertaking. And here were Father Hank and the bishop, pitching in.
“This has to be who we are,” said Porter. “We have to be people who say, ‘How can we help?’ These are our people. They’re in our parishes. They’re part of the family of God.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she said. “It just has to be done. We just need the willingness, the compassion, and the humility to admit that we don’t always know what we’re doing. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be uncomfortable. But God has placed these people in our midst, and we can’t just turn our backs.
“We can all figure it out together.”