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What makes a parish 'accessible'?

One of the most important missions of the local parish is modeling the family love which the baptized are called to share, reflecting God’s love for each one of his children. As part of that mission, parishes often have conversations about “accessibility” and “inclusivity” for Catholics with disabilities.

But what does it mean to be an accessible and welcoming parish for persons with disabilities? Is it even right to think in terms of “welcoming” people who, by every right, should consider the parish their home in the first place?

Charlie Camosy sat down this week to talk those questions through with Michele Chronister.

Michele Chronister, courtesy image.

Michele is a wife and mother, and an expert in adaptive ministry.

While in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, she developed the Children of St. Angela Merici adaptive faith formation program, while working with disabled children who were included in the faith formation program in the parish at which she served.

She has presented workshops and days of formation for dioceses throughout the country, on the topic of adaptive ministry for those with disabilities, and previously served as co-chair of the Council on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, and recently developed an online course on sacramental preparation for them.

She is also the author of books for children and adults, including “Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis – Serving Those with Special Needs” and “Taking the Lift to Heaven – a Pocket Guide to Adaptive Ministry in Your Catholic Parish.” Her children’s books include “The Catholic Field Guide” and its companion volumes, as well as other children’s books on Catholic liturgy and prayer.

What is the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD)? How are you affiliated with it?

The National Catholic Partnership on Disability is an organization that works closely with the USCCB (which does not have an “Office of Disabilities”) to advise, develop resources (they were instrumental in the recent revisions of the USCCB document, “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments for Persons with Disabilities”, for example), advocate for the sacramental and catechetical needs of those with disabilities, and to serve as a national resource for dioceses and archdioceses throughout the country — many of which do not have a dedicated office of disabilities, either due to lack of personnel or funding.

I have had the opportunity to partner with NCPD on various occasions over the years. From 2015-2017, I served as the co-chair of the Council for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Most recently, I had the opportunity to develop an online course for them, on sacramental preparation and reception for persons with disabilities.

What are some of the most important scriptural and theological resources to engage for Catholics who want to think and act more carefully when it comes to disability?

I think that we can begin by looking directly at Church documents. For example, the National Directory for Catechesis (another USCCB resource) explicitly calls ministry for those with disabilities a necessity. The guidelines document also summarizes the theological grounds for this ministry, as well as practical implications for sacramental preparation of those with disabilities in a parish setting.

Honestly, as someone who has studied liturgical and sacramental theology on the graduate level, I can say that the necessity of sacramental access for those with disabilities is rooted deeply in our Church’s theology and scriptural tradition. To begin with, a “person with a disability” is not a different species, and that category of Catholic encompasses far more individuals than at first glance. NCPD serves and advocates for those facing a wide variety of challenges – from mental health challenges to developmental or intellectual disabilities (such as cerebral palsy, down syndrome, etc.), to those with autism, ADHD, etc.

When we look to the lives of the saints (many of whom lived in a time prior to modern medical diagnostic tools) we find that many of them would have fit into one of those categories! The body of Christ, of whose members are initiated through the sacrament of baptism, is lacking if any of the members are excluded from full and active participation. And, although “full and active participation” does sometimes include active participation in lay or ordained ministry, the scope is far broader than that – it encompasses the opportunity to partake in the sacramental life of the Church, uniting the sacrifice of our lives to the sacrifice of the life of Christ.

If even one person is excluded from that sort of participation, which our baptism mandates, then the Church is far poorer for it!

Touching briefly on Scripture: it is important to reflect on the necessity of participation in the sacramental life, as well as the universal call to holiness. Jesus engaged all people in the Gospels, including those who were rejected by society.

And, it is worth saying, although Jesus did cure many people with a disability in the Gospels, the message there is not that those with disabilities should be praying for healing. Those miracles occurred in a time and place where disability could be a death sentence, and where it often led to ostracization and rejection by society. Today’s culture is entirely different. Those with disabilities can lead full, active lives, especially with assistance from modern medicine and therapies!

The miracles in the Gospels speak to the fact that Christ did not reject or ostracize those with disabilities – he saw them as the essential members of the Church that they are. Having a disability does not put someone in a separate category of the Church – rather, it is simply a part of the experience of some of the members of the Church.

You recently presented a wonderful webinar titled "What Does a Truly Accessible Parish Look Like?"

At its core - what is an accessible parish?

As I alluded to before, we have to begin with a firm belief that those with disabilities belong in the Church and have a baptismal right (that is, a right that proceeds from their reception of baptism) to reception of the sacraments.

On a very practical level, I can tell you that there are very, very, very few people who are unable to receive the Eucharist, for example. The USCCB documents that I mentioned talk about this more thoroughly, but in short, they tell us that when in doubt we should err on the side of the right of the baptized to receive the sacraments.

Parenthetically, this is, of course, assuming that the baptized person is in a state of grace! I am thinking here specifically of Catholics who may be “nonverbal” or have an intellectual disability, as they are the people whose ability to receive the Eucharist is most often questioned. Many individuals with an intellectual disability do not possess the capacity to fulfill all the requirements for a mortal sin to be committed, and therefore requiring the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation first, or articulating the doctrine of the Eucharist should not be prerequisites for their reception.

The USCCB documents state that the person should demonstrate, in some way, that they know that this is more than just bread that they are receiving, for example. But that demonstration can be extremely subtle.

I often think of a teenager that I prepared to receive the Eucharist, who had significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. With him, the indication was simply that he became slightly quieter when we entered the chapel together — we did all of our catechesis in the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle, which I highly recommend, if at all possible!

To make a parish truly accessible, we need to start from the firm belief that it is not just good but necessary to have a parish where all the members of the baptized are fully engaged and present in parish life.

We need to shift from thinking “What do we need to do to make sure we are not excluding people with disabilities and that we are offering ministries for them?” to thinking “Our parish is poorer without the contributions of those with disabilities, and it is essential that they are able to fully and actively participate.”

Accessibility is less about serving those with disabilities, and more about acknowledging that God calls them, like all of us, to sainthood, and that we need the gifts that God has given them, in order for the Church to truly flourish.

Yes, that will mean being open and willing to make practical accommodations for those with disabilities, such as wheelchair ramps, sign language interpreters, classroom aides in Catholic schools or faith formation programs, etc. But it also means welcoming those with disabilities and viewing their participation in parish life — whether that be through lay ministries or through regular attendance at Mass — as essential to our growth in holiness as a parish.

This shift in understanding is absolutely essential, in order to propel us forward in making practical changes to our buildings and how we do things, in order to accommodate those with disabilities. We are not accommodating them out of the kindness of our hearts, we are accommodating them as we would any member of our family – with the recognition that it is important that they are present and able to contribute their unique, although sometimes hidden, gifts to the Church.

My sense is that a legitimate range of diversity within Catholic liturgies, including the so-called Latin Mass, is important if we want to fully include persons with disabilities. But you're the expert: what is your view?

This is such an interesting question! Of course, we have to begin by asking ourselves the question, “Is a legitimate range of diversity within Catholic liturgy important for any of us?” The answer is yes! Aside from the various rites (both the Roman Rite and the Eastern rites) there is a lot of diversity in celebration of the Roman Rite, based on local culture, for example.

Because those with disabilities are not a separate species of Catholic, of course they can benefit from, and may feel more comfortable with, different flavors of legitimate, licit liturgical practice. For some people, a low Mass in the Extraordinary Form, with its brevity and emphasis on greater silence, might actually be easier to attend than an Ordinary Form Mass complete with louder music and a long homily — for example, those with anxiety, autism, or any sensory need might actually have an easier time with a short, more quiet Mass.

Any liturgical practice that is permitted and encouraged by the Church can bear fruit in the lives of any of the faithful, including persons with disabilities!

You have an upcoming online course that you developed for NCPD on sacramental preparation and access for persons with disabilities. It is coming out soon.

Can you tell us about the course and how we can take it when it comes out?

Yes! “Preparation for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” will be available through the Teachable platform sometime in June (official release date still TBD). You can learn more through browsing this website, where further information about enrollment will be posted when available! You can also follow NCPD on the standard social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

I am so excited about this course, as it incorporates scriptural, theological, and practical considerations. A variety of experts – such as a Scripture scholar, liturgical and sacramental theologians, parents of and a person with disabilities, and those working in practical ministry – are part of the discussions included in this course.

The course is divided into eight modules, which deal which discuss each of the sacraments of initiation (as well as the sacrament of reconciliation), practical considerations, the theological basis for sacramental preparation for those with disabilities, and a deep consider of vocation (primarily in the context of the universal call to holiness of the baptized).

Each module is structured so as to include a scriptural reflection presented by Fr. Charles Samson, a Scripture scholar at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, a mini-lecture presented by me, reading assignments, reflection questions, and a podcast episode with an expert in the field. It is a rich, thorough course that can serve as either an introduction to this ministry or an opportunity for ongoing development. But the course is not just for those working in ministry, especially in sacramental preparation. It is a course than any and all members of the faithful would benefit from.

Those with disabilities are ordinary Catholics, and their voices and needs deserve to be heard and listened to in the Church.

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