In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, as we focus our attention on the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, during the month of January, our faith also challenges us to an overarching aspect of mercy, to “embrace the stranger.” To engage in relationship those individuals whom we do not know or often refuse to know due to their differences in their physical abilities or behaviors. They have often become “strangers” to us. God calls us constantly to break down the walls of division that separate us from our brothers and sisters. As people of faith, through our baptismal call to discipleship, we can be the bridge to these individuals and families who are searching for ways to more integrate themselves into parish life.
The “differences” associated with physical challenges among persons with disabilities are often easier to perceive and accept within our parish communities. Wheelchair access, braille signage, and enhanced hearing devices or ASL interpretive practices during Mass are just a few of the ways to help all feel welcome and engaged in our liturgy. But a more subtle form of isolation is experienced by those with cognitive, emotional or behavioral health problems. Just walking into the church full of people or a social function can be a paralyzing and painful experience. This is particularly challenging for an individual on the autism spectrum, who might react with behaviors which provide a soothing outlet for this sensory overload. Some may shutdown, curl up or try to escape the encounter. They may call out abruptly, and find the need to move around within the environment to deal with the overwhelming external stimuli. How fellow parishioners react in these situations can so often create a lasting feeling of being “unwelcome” within their own worshiping community. Unwarranted comments, along with glares or stares, are strongly received as signs of being unwelcome.
We can become the advocate for those struggling in these situations and intervene in any way possible to extend our hands of welcome and healing. Perhaps you can introduce yourselves to these individuals and their families and ask them about ideas as to how to improve their experience at Mass or other parish functions. Maybe attend a parish council or liturgy planning committee and be a voice for them to introduce accommodations or offer education to fellow parishioners on the concepts of welcome and acceptance to those who live and struggle with these behaviors. These actions, along with many other ideas for creating a more welcoming faith community, will help us all better understand the call of mercy and compassion toward one another.
Deacon Jerry Jablonowski is director, Diocese of Camden Home and Parish Healthcare Services, VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services.
Ministry With the Deaf and Persons with Disabilities
For more information regarding the Diocese of Camden Ministry With the Deaf and Persons with Disabilities, contact co-directors:
Sister Bonnie McMenamin, SSJ Voice- 856-583-6111 or 609-828-3423 VP (text): 856-283-3962 firstname.lastname@example.org
VP (text): 856-283-3962 – Camden
VP (text): 856-942-1000 – Westmont email@example.com
These ministries are part of VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services, a ministry of the Diocese of Camden, serving the healthcare needs of elderly and persons with disabilities.
For more information about VITALity, contact: Deacon Jerry Jablonowski, 856-583-6196, firstname.lastname@example.org