This terrific piece from Calgary, featuring my friend and blog neighbor Father Matthew Schneider, reminds us what it means to reach out to those in the margins:
Catholics the world over are accustomed to bringing their individual petitions to mass. But this mass at St. Patrick’s is different. This is a Special Needs Mass. Lest there be any confusion over what that means, this mass is for people whose special needs require medical, mental or psychological support. The pews are mostly populated by families with children whose normal behavior would raise the eyebrows (and sometimes the ire), of other churchgoers. An adult man in the front pew talks, out loud, through the service. When he needs a washroom, a fellow parishioner helps him find his way.
For parents like Brenda-Lee Kearney, the mass is delightfully chaotic, yet peaceful. She and her husband Mike have an 11-year-old son with FASD, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. They love Jacob and they love their church. But bringing Jacob to mass is difficult and after Kearney approached her parish priest with an idea, the Special Needs Mass began.
The once-monthly, then bi-weekly masses became a regular 5 pm Sunday mass after pastor Fr. Jerome Lavigne moved to St. Pat’s in 2018. And the Kearneys are grateful. With a mission to create a loving, supportive and compassionate community that renews and restores faith and hope to families and children with special needs, the mass shows “God is really at work here in our parish,” says Brenda-Lee Kearney. Parents with special needs children often stay after mass for welcome fellowship. While most participants are from the parish, others attend as word of the mass spreads. “I believe most of us are parenting our kids in a community that doesn’t understand our reality. We are understanding of each other because we are living it.”
That message resonates with Fr. Matthew Schneider. “There is a natural sense of community when we come together to worship. Where possible, it’s nice to be able to add elements that make worship more meaningful to certain groups of people,” says Schneider, who said the Special Needs Mass at St. Pat’s on June 22.
A former Calgarian now living in Washington, D.C. where he’s working on a Doctorate in Theology, Schneider says one Catholic church in Washington hosts a regular mass that features an interpreter for the deaf. Other masses are conducted in languages other than English. He likes what St. Pat’s has consciously done to accommodate a group of believers often marginalized in the greater society.
…Fr. Schneider’s appreciation for the Special Needs Mass is more than professional. Diagnosed as autistic three years ago, Schneider went public with his diagnosis on World Autism Day this past April. The diagnosis came after Schneider, then in his mid-30s, reached out to medical professionals for help understanding why one of his first priest assignments was terminated one year into a three-year post.
What he learned helps Schneider make sense of how autism impacts his social interactions.