When my newly adopted son first started coming to church with us after four years in an orphanage, I was glad to know a local parish had a crying room. He needed to move around constantly, rocked back and forth, and was extremely impulsive. This was before I'd ever heard of a “special needs Mass.” I noticed that my developmentally delayed four-year-old wasn't the only non-baby in the crying room. There were people in wheelchairs, a family with a young adult with autism who made noises and rocked, and a woman with an oxygen tank.
We attended Mass in the crying room until we heard about another parish that had was just starting a monthly special needs Mass. My son is sixteen now and autistic, and while we can sometimes attend a mainstream Mass, he's often not in control of his behavior or emotions enough for me to be comfortable that he won't disturb everyone around us. The special needs Mass has been ideal for these Sundays when I don't want to draw attention away from the altar onto his behavior. There, we can blend right in. Others sometimes call out, fidget constantly, are non-verbal, or hold something of great attachment brought from home. We often see a child who insists on wearing a strange combination of clothes—his mom knows which battles are worth fighting and that's not one of them—and a man in his forties who is childlike in his behavior and understanding. An older man brings his wife who suffers from dementia.
Many dioceses have been having an annual special needs Mass for years, such as the Dioceses of Washington, Joliet, Atlanta and Syracuse. There's now a growing trend to offer this type of Mass monthly. For some families, the availability of an "inclusion" Mass makes all the difference. Some parents, including older parents of adult special needs children, either stopped going to church or had to go separately in order for one person to stay home with the special needs person. For these folks being able to attend Mass as a family is a gift.
"It was another burden we had to deal with as parents of a disabled child," Maureen McDougal of St. Catherine of Sienna Parish, Franklin Square says. "I'd go to one Mass, my husband would go to another, and our daughter (age 29 with Down syndrome) wasn't going at all." That was before her parish started a ministry for special needs that includes one Mass per month. "If she's playing with a toy or kind of singing to herself, it's OK, and we don't feel so conspicuous because so many others there have their different behaviors. She's at Mass and she does 'get' some of it. We're really grateful we can go as a family now" Their daughter receives Communion, having gone through special needs sacramental preparation when she was a teenager.
In Tyler, Texas last week, the first diocesan Mass for those with special needs was celebrated by Bishop Joseph Strickland in the Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul. “These people, the children and adults and their families, are part of our parishes,” Linda Porter, director of the diocesan Office for Faith Formation 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?”
“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.”
Porter’s grandson Jordan was one of those for whom the Mass was intended. Jordan, 20, is profoundly autistic. “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.”
“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.”
In Chicago, Old St. Patrick's Church holds a monthly Mass for those with special needs from September to May in the school cafeteria. The tables and casual setting work well for those with disabilities, some of whom are coloring on hand outs while having a snack. The ongoing special needs Mass at Holy Name Church in Fort Worth, Texas is held on Saturdays and is followed by a reception in the Family Life Center where families can meet others who live with a person with special needs in a social setting. Holy Trinity Church in Kuliouou, Hawaii holds a monthly special needs Mass followed by a potluck supper. In many parishes now, including those with disabilities means not just offering the special needs Mass but also religious education classes for those with special needs, including preparation to receive the sacraments. Mary Immaculate parish in Plainfield, Illinois offers not only a special needs Mass and CCD program, but a special needs choir (which joins the typical choir to sing at Mass and various events). Quite a few special needs Masses now have a sign interpreter for the hearing impaired and even a lectionary printed in braille for the blind.
The format of a special needs Mass often means shorter prayers, readings, and sermon, and songs that are easy to sing along to. The inclusive Masses understand and welcome the child having a meltdown or another flapping his hands, someone in a grumpy mood, those who are non-verbal.
In my diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, we now have fourteen parishes that hold regular special needs Masses, in some cases even twice a month. Sometimes my son refuses to shake hands with those around us; he usually won't make eye contact. More than once he's started ripping up the bulletin and kicking the kneeler. With unpredictable behavior, I often feel more comfortable at the special needs Mass where the setting is more accommodating. I'm so grateful to have the option of the inclusive Mass.
Parishes looking to begin a Mass for those with special needs are turning to the USCCB's Opening Doors of Welcome and Justice to Parishioners with Disabilities: A Parish Resource Guide, when seeking to start a ministry to the special needs community.