Conference brings light to disability issues in the Church

November 8, 2022

Toni Flagg, at left, interprets a keynote address by Bishop Brendan J. Cahill during the 2022 National Catholic Partnership on Disability conference at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring on Oct. 21. Flagg, who attends St. Dominic Deaf Parish with her husband Deacon Bruce Flagg, and Father Len Broniak, C.Ss.R, the chaplain and deaf ministry program director, were sign language interpreters during the conference. (Photo by James Ramos/Herald)

SPRING — Disability ministry leaders, advocates, family members and more gathered at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability’s (NCPD) annual conference.

NCPD Director Charleen Katra, who previously served as an associate director for the ministry for people with disabilities of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Archdiocese, said the goal of the conference was to raise awareness about disability issues in the Church, but more importantly to train Church communities on how to “create a welcoming and hospitable” campus, parish, school and diocese, especially in light of the recent Synod.

“You want to do more than just include someone,” she said. “You want to help create a home for the person with a disability, in the Church, to where they move from just being included. We want to move people from inclusion to belonging in the Church.”

With the human spirit built for connection, she said, “we want to help those who serve in disability ministry and even more so those who desire to do so, to not only learn best practices and have tools and resources.”

Katra said the recent Synod efforts have helped bring new issues to light, some that both the Church community and its leadership have overlooked in the past.

“I don’t need to tell somebody with a disability what they need. They can tell me,” she said. “They can tell the Church, and they have. Through the Synod and all the surveys and virtual meetings that we had over the last several months, that was a resounding message.”
Describing other issues, Katra said attitudinal barriers are often harder to remove than physical ones.

“People with disabilities and their families want to feel a sense of belonging in the Church, and they do not feel like they have been on many occasions,” Katra said.

Part of the conference’s programming included a sensory-friendly celebration of the Mass, which featured subdued lighting and music, softer or fewer instruments and spoken Mass parts and other shortened segments for people with processing delays, as well as an American Sign Language interpreter and assistive listening devices and large print Missals.

The sensory-friendly Mass was a new experience for Bishop Brendan J. Cahill of Victoria, who was a keynote speaker at the conference.
His address reflected on several Vatican documents and Church teachings from the Second Vatican Council and other Church leaders.

Bishop Cahill applauded those attending the conference, saying, “You are the best of humanity.”

“We are trying to see humanity with the eyes of Jesus,” he said. “With Scripture, often we picture ourselves in the crowd. We might picture ourselves as the woman with a hemorrhage. We might picture ourselves as the crowds at the Mount of the Beatitudes. But also, we’re invited to picture ourselves as Jesus facing the crowds. That God became human to teach us to become God. To teach us to become His presence in the world in which we live. In a way, as we read the Scriptures and acknowledge that Jesus became fully human, we come to realize that we are called to look at the world with the same eyes that Jesus had for humanity.”

He reminded the attendees to make a daily conscious effort to see the light of Christ shining in other people and in themselves as well.
Drawing from St. John Paul II, Bishop Cahill said to look beyond the evil things in the world, to “see what’s positive in others,” and to “maintain a love of God for them.”

“Do we know how to make room for our brothers and sisters?” he asked. “We live in such a busy world; life is always moving. Do we also make time for others?” St. John Paul II gave a vision for the Second Vatican Council, he said, for the Church to continue to make room for others and “to respect the dignity of every human person created by God.”

Bishop Cahill emphasized a line from a document from Vatican II: “without any exceptions.”

He said, “Everyone should look on his neighbor, without any exceptions, as another self, bearing in mind, above all, his life and the means necessary for living it in a dignified way.”

This inspired and motivated Katra.

All the documents and teaching he referenced showed that the Church “really saw beyond themselves and could appreciate and embrace through empathy and compassion, the needs of others that were greater than my own or myself.”

Everyone knows someone who is affected by a disability, she said. She compared it to the story of the Good Samaritan: “Are you the person stopping and offering to help? Or are you galloping on by your house because you have no time?”

She tempered her challenge with the reality that everyone has different roles throughout the day that affect what everyone can do, but she said, “Gospel values always equal full inclusion, and beyond that, full belonging. Still, someone slowed down.”

The conference featured several breakout workshops and roundtable discussions, as well as a virtual registration option. More than 100 people were registered to attend, including attendees from the East and West coasts. American Sign Language interpreters from the St. Dominic Deaf Parish in Houston also interpreted the keynote addresses and Mass.

Part of the efforts of the NCPD is to encourage and increase sensory-friendly Masses in the Church, a ministry that’s starting to grow both in Galveston-Houston and across the country.

“Parishes are starting to see and understand this is a real need,” Katra said. “If you want to accompany people, if you want to be a synodal Church, offering a sensory-friendly Mass is as equally, if not more important, for Catholic identity than, again, the importance of adapting catechetical programs and other events and programs in a parish to make them physically accessible and adapted to the various needs of diverse learners.”

Katra recognized that many people with disabilities are among the marginalized populations that Pope Francis has consistently preached about during his papacy, especially during the Synod.

“It’s important not only to the Church but to God,” she said.

She also noted how she wished that both Church members and Church leaders knew how much the other was trying to move the Church forward.

“Oftentimes, maybe one doesn’t see what the other is doing, and I think there are great efforts being done on both sides of the fence, and I’m always trying to encourage and get that message out to people, especially to the families, the Church leadership is really coming to trainings because I know because I’m on this side helping directing some of this. But the needs are real,” she said.

Melissa Alvarez, assistant director of the Ministry with Persons with Disabilities for the Archdiocese, said the conference gave ministry leaders and Church members the chance to meet each other and know where their needs are and how to help each other.

“This conference is very important because we are advocates for people that don’t have a voice, that need that support, and to spread the word, to proclaim God’s word and network within our own community,” she said.

With communities continuing to respond to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said many parishes and schools are seeing families struggle with achieving a healthy balance in life, especially families with children with special needs.

“The parents’ hands are full from taking care of their children’s daily needs, let alone trying to remain active in faith formation,” Alvarez said. “I’ve encountered that a lot and that probably has to do with the repercussion of [the pandemic]... We’re going to see that wave of more emotional needs, more different needs, that now are not just disability, but more mental health issues and needs.”

She said the Archdiocesan Ministry with Persons with Disabilities offers resources to local parishes and parishioners online at mpwd. For more information on the NCPD, visit †