Mama, bring your special needs child to mass. We need you more than you’ll ever know.
“You’re the reason we sit in the Church now.”
I turned around, confused. A woman about my age stood behind me, an earnest expression on her face.
“My daughter has autism. The way you take your son in and out of the cry room,” she looked at my toddler, sitting in a folding chair and biting the icing from the top of his donut. “I realized I could do the same with her.”
A girl about 12 stood by the window, the fingers of her right hand playing through a shaft of light. She worked a T-shaped chewy in her mouth while her left hand flapped in excitement.
Her mother looked at me. I swallowed. Behind me, G contemplated the sprinkles that had fallen from her pastry.
I took a sip of water and cried.
Special needs for us are a technicality. We hang on to the spectrum by a thread, and the last time mass was an issue she was six.
We call it the Captain Worm Incident, and it’s a moment the girl herself doesn’t even remember. From what I can gather, G was engrossed in an imaginary world. Right as the priest elevated the chalice, my darling jumped from the pew and shouted,
“Aye, aye, aye, Worm!”.
She spent the rest of the morning in the principal’s office until I could pick her up.
Now granted, kids act out in mass all the time.
But for us, this moment was a capstone – the finishing touch of our misdiagnosis. I remember trying to explain the concept of imaginational sensitivities to the school psychologist.
“Mrs. Kochis,” she said, her gaze even, her tone forcibly light, “normal children don’t do that.”
“Now if you’ll just sign here we can move on with the meeting…”
That was a tumultuous time in our lives.
I spent the next few months in abject terror, especially at mass, waiting for the next poorly timed outburst. I’ve not forgotten that fear – the hypersensitivity to every motion, the overreaction to every sound; the tendency to search for disapproving glares.
“A child who stims or vocalizes should receive the Eucharist at home.”
“Children who can’t control themselves shouldn’t be brought to mass.”
“It’s not a “special need” – it’s a parenting issue – and we shouldn’t have to deal with it in church.”
Yes, these are statements I’ve heard. Though not always directed at me, they remain proof positive that churches aren’t the friendliest of places for special needs families. If it’s clear in the catechism that “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone,” (CCC 357) how long before we realize the problem lies not with the doctrine, nor with the children themselves?
The truth is that the problem lies with us.
Humanity’s Privileged Witnesses
The Catholic Church is primed for inclusion. How could it not be, when the very core of our faith rests on the sanctity of human life? We stand at the front of the pro-life movement; we uphold the dignity of life at every stage. And yet Sunday morning, when the special needs family sits down in the pew, how many of us find ourselves uncomfortable?
There is no doubt that in revealing the fundamental frailty of the human condition, the disabled person becomes an expression of the tragedy of pain. In this world of ours that approves hedonism and is charmed by ephemeral and deceptive beauty, the difficulties of the disabled are often perceived as a shame or a provocation and their problems as burdens to be removed or resolved as quickly as possible. (Pope St. John Paul the Great)
Mass is supposed to be solemn; our experience unequivocally sacred. We seek beauty and contemplation and solitude and peace, yet we allow ourselves to be fooled by a societal lie.
But the Church is nothing if not counter-cultural. We know the value of human life; we know the value of suffering. In this way, those with disabilities are “living icons of the crucified Son, [revealing] the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death. They show us, over and above all appearances, that the ultimate foundation of human existence is Jesus Christ.”
Disabled people are humanity’s privileged witnesses. They can teach everyone about the love that saves us; they can become heralds of a new world, no longer dominated by force, violence and aggression, but by love, solidarity and acceptance, a new world transfigured by the light of Christ, the Son of God who became incarnate, who was crucified and rose for us. (Pope St. John Paul the Great)
We have much to learn if our hardened hearts allow it.
Lessons From a Special Needs Family
My friend Maura is mom to D, a beautiful daughter with profound developmental disabilities. Around the time I had the encounter with the mother at Donut Sunday, a colleague of mine wrote this post about her struggles to find a welcoming church. I was so struck by her experience that I shared it with Maura, asking if it had been anything like her own.
I knew Maura’s answer would probably be no; my colleague’s experiences took place in a Protestant denomination where Children’s Church is the norm. But what I didn’t anticipate was the beauty of Maura’s response, nor the depth with which D herself understands and participates in the Mass. Here’s what Maura shared with me, along with the graces we can experience through the gift of disabled children at Mass.
Reverence for the Sacred
“D LOVES Mass. Loves it. She asks to go. She wants to go. Sometimes she wants to stay. She knows what’s up and gets so excited. Sometimes she claps at the consecration. Sometimes she runs out of the pew only to prostrate herself in the middle of the aisle — full face-to-the-floor prostration complete with a breast-strike. I’m pretty sure she sees angels in adoration and has caught a glimpse of the Blessed Mother at least once.”
Humility and Compassion
“Sometimes [D] laughs inappropriately. Sometimes I have to go in the back with a fussy baby and she waves excitedly and yells, “Bye, Mom!” Sometimes her dad will be discreetly returning with a toddler back from the bathroom, and she books to the back of the church to greet them, loudly clomping her Mass shoes on the tile floor…Sometimes (rarely) an unknown trigger causes her to starting moaning and keening so we have to take her home early…There are stares, nasty comments, growls, groans, moved pews, rolled eyes, and sneers. But more often there are smiles, nods, chuckles, doors held open, offers of help, and words of comfort.
Because of my own insecurities and narcissism, the former tends to stick with me far longer and digs far deeper than the latter. With the help of my husband, I’m learning to reverse that and keep the latter experiences close to my heart and fresh in my mind, for I know, that is how Our Lord and Lady see her.
She isn’t affected by any of it because she is there for her love of Our Lord.”
Grace Transmitted Through the Mass
“I need Mass. My husband needs Mass. My children need Mass. And, quite frankly, the people at Mass — the curmudgeons and the kindly alike — need D to be there. D MAKES people step outside of themselves. She can’t help it. It’s part of the reason God put her on the Earth. She can make people uncomfortable, but it’s not her; it’s them. Daily I need to step outside of myself and put her first. I know I get grace from that. Other people need that opportunity for grace too.”
Maura’s heartfelt response is directly in line with the words of John Paul the Great. D is indeed a privileged witness, a child of God in such close communion with him that she can’t help but prostrate herself in his presence.
How many of us would dare to do that? How many of us would lay aside our reservations and honor our Lord so openly, without fear?
Please, mama. Sit in the church.
Don’t let the hardness of our hearts keep you away.
Let your children come to him, and to all of us, who need you more than you could possibly imagine.
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