||As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable
crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by
the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of
Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, son of David,
have pity on me." And many rebuked him, telling him to be
silent. But he kept calling out all the more, "Son of David,
have pity on me." Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they
called the blind man, saying to him, "Take courage; get up, he
is calling you" (Mark 10: 46-49).
Jesus rarely reacts as his disciples expect. The righteous get
hard words, while the sick and the sinners get a compassionate
welcome. When Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, the crowd tells him
to be quiet. But Jesus says to them, "Call him." And when the people
speak to Bartimaeus again, their blindness has been removed.
Instead of a nuisance, they recognize in Bartimaeus someone
called by Jesus: "Take courage . . . he is calling you."
"Call him." Jesus is giving this instruction to the Church
today, still challenging us to extend the welcome of Christ to those
whom we are keeping on the margins of the community, without
even realizing it. "Call him": they are words we need to hear in the
ongoing work of inclusion of persons with disabilities.
Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S. bishops urged parishes to
move beyond accessibility in their outreach to people with disabilities.
The Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on
People with Disabilities gave a call to
action: "It is not enough merely to
affirm the rights of people with disabilities.
We must actively work to
make them real in the fabric of modern
society"(#10). Physical access to
the church building is only the beginning.
"People can also play a more
active role in the liturgy if provided
with proper aids and training. Blind
parishioners can serve as lectors, for
example, and deaf parishioners as
special ministers of the Eucharist.
We look forward to the day when
more individuals with disabilities are
active in the full-time, professional
service of the Church, and we applaud
recent decisions to accept qualified
candidates for ordination or the religious
life in spite of their significant
This teaching has been reiterated
in more recent Church documents.
Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship (2000), instructs that in new church buildings the tabernacle
(#74), the altar (#59) and the ambo (#60) be accessible to wheelchairs.
The implication is that persons with disabilities will not
simply have access to the sacraments, but that they will take on
roles of leadership in the liturgy.
The Church has come to realize gradually that persons with
disabilities are more than objects of the Church's charitable mission.
They are also subjects, "active agents in ministry," children
of God who are called to "enrich the People of God with the gifts
entrusted to them by the Lord to render his Bride resplendent" (Preparation for the Jubilee III). Persons with disabilities share the
responsibilities of all the baptized: to help build up the body of
Christ through lives of prayer and service.
To assert the equal rights of persons with disabilities is not
to deny their difference. On the contrary, the Church teaches that
this difference is a gift to the community. "Disability is not a punishment;
indeed it is a privilege, which God uses to manifest his
love and crown all with the glory of the resurrection" (Preparation I). Persons with disabilities have a special ability to preach the
gospel without saying a word. All of us are broken, but most of us
have become adept at hiding our brokenness. People with disabilities
encourage us not to be afraid of our crosses, but rather to
bring them with us to the liturgy: to let them become instruments
of grace. We do not have to show only our best side to God.
More than most, the person with disabilities is a living witness
to the God who chooses the weak and lifts up the lowly.
"They bring with them a special insight into the meaning of life;
for they live, more than the rest of us perhaps, in the shadow of
the cross. And out of their experience they forge virtues like courage,
patience, perseverance, compassion and sensitivity that
should serve as an inspiration to all Christians" (Pastoral
Statement 13). The person with disabilities challenges our limited
definitions of the human person.
In December 1999, the Pontifical Council for the Family called a
Vatican Conference on the role of the family in the development
of persons with disabilities. Conference participants identified
four negative attitudes that get in the way of the full development
of children with disabilities. While the focus was the family, the
same four attitudes can impact the parish family and get in the
way of the ministry of persons with disabilities.
REJECTION of the person with disabilities is rarely obvious.
But rejection happens when parents blame each other for the
disability of their child, and rejection happens when parishes
deny the disability by behaving as though it is not there.
FEAR can paralyze families, preventing them from adapting
and taking positive action when a child with disabilities is
born. In parishes, the fear of doing something wrong can scare us
into doing nothing.
OVER PROTECTION out of love can prevent children
with disabilities from discovering how much they can do for
themselves. The same attitude can inhibit the growth of persons
with disabilities in the liturgical ministries.
RESIGNATION of children and adults with disabilities.
Resignation, the spiritual equivalent of breaking even, is not enough.
Growth only happens when families accept reality joyfully. In the
same way, unless the parish welcomes persons with disabilities
with joy, it will be hard for joy to come with liturgical ministry.
So what should parishes do as they welcome persons with disabilities
in the liturgical ministries?
As Jesus said to the crowd, "CALL." Society provides access
to persons with disabilities-but often as observers rather than
as participants. As a result, many people with disabilities continue
to experience isolation. A specific invitation to become actively
involved in the liturgy means a lot. If you think a person can be a
good usher, reader, server, or extraordinary minister of Holy
Communion, let him or her know!
STRETCH AND TEACH. The community needs to be flexible.
Changes may be required. If the ambo is not accessible to
readers in wheelchairs, for example, adaptations may need to be
made. Catechesis can help the community welcome these changes
and the new life they bring.
COMMUNICATE. Take time to communicate with the
new liturgical ministers. Do not be afraid to let them know if
changes need to be made. People with developmental disabilities
often have behavioral issues. Parents and friends can help you
find effective ways to communicate. Whatever you do, don't pretend
the difficulties are non-existent.
INTEGRITY. The liturgy is only a beginning in involving
persons with disabilities in the life of the parish. Are people with
disabilities also welcomed to serve in other aspects of parish
life-as catechists, as pastoral council members, on school
boards, on renovation committees? People with physical disabilities
have as many gifts to bring to such ministries as those without.
And those with developmental disabilities can often bring a
wisdom that could enrich the community. Let the involvement of
people with disabilities reach beyond symbolic representation in
Jean Vanier, founder of the l'Arche communities for people
with developmental disabilities, urges a redefinement of inclusion.
||"I am not just saying that we should be kind to such people
because they are human beings," he writes in Becoming
Human (1998). "Nor is it a question of 'normalizing' them in
order that they can be 'like us,' participate in church services,
and go to the movies and the local swimming pool. When I
speak of the inclusion of those who are marginalized I am
affirming that they have a gift to give us all, to each of us as
individuals, to the larger forms of human organization, and
to society, in general. The excluded, I believe, live certain values
that we all need to discover and to live ourselves before
we can become truly human" (83-84).
When Jesus told the crowd to call Bartimaeus, their eyes
were opened: instead of a blind beggar, they saw a person, a
human being with a name and with a call. And Bartimaeus, too,
was transformed. He became a disciple: from that time on
Bartimaeus "followed him on his way."
• The Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities, November 1978, USCCB Publishing.
• Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities (1998), a ten-point summary of the 1978 document.
• The 1995 Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Person with Disabilities, USCCB Publishing.
• The "Preparation for the Jubilee of the Disabled," http://www.vatican.va
• Pope John Paul II's homily for the Jubilee of the Disabled, http://www.vatican.va
• "Conclusions of a Vatican Conference on the Family and
Integration of the Disabled," http://www.vatican.va
• Becoming Human, Jean Vanier, (Paulist Press, 1998).
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is Director of Liturgy at St. James Cathedral
in Seattle, Washington.