KATRA: Lent is a time to extend love, understanding to those with disabilities

March 26, 2019

In recent weeks I have had the privilege of hearing personal stories that touched my heart. Each story was wrapped in God’s grace as are the individuals who shared them.

Listening to someone’s life experiences can bring about strong emotions, especially when events are painful or difficult; similar to how our hearts are moved as we follow Christ through these 40 days of Lent.

At times, we all face circumstances outside our control. This is a fact of life. God didn’t create us to have all the answers or live autonomously. He created us to give and receive love. I realize that what is shared with me blesses me profoundly. Such is the reality of serving the disability community. I pray it is also the outcome of our Lenten journey.
I often invite groups I speak with to indicate by a show of hands if they know or love someone who has autism. The number of hands raised has grown over the years corresponding with statistics.

The Center for Disease Control currently reports 1 in 59 people are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Signs that indicate that life is changing. When diversity increases, it makes an impact on the world, on neighborhoods, on faith communities, on us.

Knowing or loving someone with autism is a game changer. Life is no longer familiar or straightforward. Yet individuals on the spectrum, created in God’s image, need us to enter their world.

In doing so, we will be transformed. We will be encouraged to think, teach and respond in new ways and we will have opportunities to grow in patience, compassion and humility.

It can be frightening to realize the ease with which we can take gifts from God for granted.

Consider the gift of an effectively functioning brain. A brain that is working well allows us to navigate everyday life experiences almost effortlessly.

Hence, we rarely think about it, let alone acknowledge it as the driving force behind our actions. Playing the piano, riding a bike and countless other activities entail the use of a functioning brain. Imagine what life is like for an individual whose brain does not work efficiently.

A parent once advised me that her son who has autism and was preparing to be confirmed had never allowed anyone to sign his forehead on Ash Wednesday. How many times have each of us experienced this profound yet straightforward Lenten ritual of being signed on the forehead with ashes? We likely did so with no difficulty. Yet, this young man’s resistance to touch was monumental as the act of being signed on the forehead must similarly occur, with Chrism oil, in the Rite of Confirmation.

Pastorally, sacramental preparations and occasionally the celebrations may be adapted to meet an individual’s needs. We now recommend from the onset of Confirmation preparation that individuals who have sensory processing disorders (SPDs) routinely practice being signed on the forehead with baby oil to replicate the upcoming ritual.

We also advise that a picture of the bishop be displayed regularly to establish face and name recognition in advance. The lives of individuals who have SPDs, and their families, are impacted daily. Basic life skills such as brushing one’s teeth, getting a haircut, going out, even to Church, can be extremely trying for everyone involved.

Attendance at Mass is a spiritually fulfilling experience for Catholics. We schedule our day and commitments around our participation. We may even enjoy going out to eat or to visit with family or friends afterward. 

Could you imagine if going to Mass were incredibly stressful or overwhelming for you? Probably not. 

How would you feel knowing that going to Mass to pray and worship, to be nourished by the Eucharist and supported by a faith community, can be so anxiety-inducing for some Catholics that they are physically and emotionally unable to join us? They are not willfully choosing to stay away. They want to attend. They hunger spiritually. 

One individual described needing several days to prepare to be able to go to Mass; Days, not hours or minutes. Picture this person, after days of self-talk, finally arriving, exhausted, maybe late. 

Struggling to suppress their growing anxiety they discreetly make their way into a pew. Maybe “your” pew or one nearby. Will they see heads turn to look at them? Will smiling faces say “we’re glad you’re here” or will stares imply “do you know you’re late?” 

Every life, every family, has challenges. Some are shared similarly by many people, and some may be unique. Often it is having shared experiences that bond us to others and sometimes it helps raise our empathy for others. 

Mass attendance, sacramental preparations and celebrations are certainly intended by God to be joyful experiences for every Catholic. The more we embrace our differences and “render our hearts, not our garments” as we heard on Ash Wednesday, the more we will begin to make room in our pews and our world for persons who have more significant needs. Every diagnosis is unique, though some strategies are beneficial to many who experience similar challenges. 

We plan to begin offering “sensory-friendly” Masses in the Archdiocese this year to meet the needs of some parishioners and their families. Such Liturgies may offer lower lighting, quieter music, shorter homilies, a sensory item lending library (Rosaries, holy cards, etc.) to improve focus by calming anxieties, etc. 

Most importantly, to offer appreciation for everyone, even if not “on task;” for God made us all members of His Church. This will make a world of difference; the difference between attending Mass or not. 

Charleen Katra is an associate director with the Ministry with Persons with Disabilities in the Archdiocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.