To the Family With the Disabled Boy in Church

To the Family With the Disabled Boy in Church September 24, 2018


I was at the 5:30 PM Mass.

I was lonely and cranky, as usual, homesick for my Byzantine Divine Liturgies, trying to be grateful to be at a liturgy at all but failing because I am a grouch. I didn’t want to be there. I was annoyed.

A few rows behind me, someone wouldn’t stop talking.

It sounded like a grown man or a teenage boy was providing his own commentary on the liturgy.

In the pauses that followed Father’s prayers, the boy would repeat Father said or ask a question that didn’t make sense. Someone would try to hush him, gently, and he’d continue speaking in a voice that was harsh like a whisper but not much softer. And the person who was with him would gently hush him again.

I glanced around, as one does, but I couldn’t see him.

After awhile, I realized the person wasn’t being disruptive on purpose. He must have an intellectual disability.

Father continued the Mass as usual. He preached about Christ placing the child in the midst of the disciples and commanding them to receive him. Every time he paused for breath, the young man behind me would ask a question or repeat the last word Father said. Every time Father ended his sentence in a questioning tone, the boy considered the answer to the question aloud. Every time Father said something in a strong declarative voice, the boy would say “Hmmmm” or “Ahhh,” considering the truth that Father revealed to him and clearly not understanding it well. His caregiver kept on gently hushing him, which didn’t do much good.

The Communion hymn was “I Am the Bread of Life,” that notoriously atonal song with at least six verses and lyrics that don’t rhyme. Personally I like it, but I don’t blame anybody who doesn’t. I like to sing the harmonies on the chorus. On the way back from Communion, I caught a glimpse of Father’s inquisitor. He was a wiry boy of about fourteen with the facial characteristics of Down’s Syndrome. He was clinging, with the most blissful smile on his face, to a woman a little older than me, chattering to her, remarking on everything he saw. She smiled awkwardly as she returned his embrace with one arm and bundled him back to his seat.

“I Am the Bread of Life” continued as I knelt in thanksgiving. I enjoyed belting out the alto line of the chorus; a man to one side of me was singing tenor while the organist sang soprano. It may not be the prettiest song, but we were holding our own and making it work.

The boy behind me started singing along.

He couldn’t carry a tune or anything close to it, not that “I Am the Bread of Life” has much of a tune. He didn’t know the lyrics and I don’t think he could read them. He sang all the louder– mostly just repetitions of “JEEEEEEESUUUUUUS! JESUS!”

When we finally finished, the organist played a verse instrumentally, and the boy kept singing along with his own improvised extra verse.

I resolved to say something after Mass.

I’m not good at saying things, in person. I’m more awkward than words can express, in person. I would rather be hanged by the neck than make small talk with anyone after church. But I just had to say something. I wanted to walk up to the family and welcome the boy. “I am so glad you’ve come to Mass today! Thank you very much for being here! You were trying so hard to understand everything Father was saying, weren’t you? I could hear you thinking hard about just everything. Jesus is so happy you sung to him like that. You did a wonderful job sitting still on the bench for such a long time. I hope I see you here next week. I want to sing with you again.”

I wanted to talk to the mother as well. I can’t imagine what I would have said to her. I’d probably have messed it up royally. “Thank you for coming. I’m so glad you brought him to Mass. I hope nobody tells you you shouldn’t be here. Please come again. Don’t let the fools grind you down.”


I told myself over and over again that I was going to conquer my shyness and thank them for being the face of Christ for me, reminding me how I ought to be wondering at every word the Gospel revealed and singing to Jesus whether I understood it or not.

I waited, singing along in harmony, until the first verse of the processional hymn had ended, before I turned to leave the church.

The boy and his mother had already left.

I suppose they made a bee-line for the door as soon as Father said “Go in peace.”

I hope it was because the mother realized the boy couldn’t hold still any longer. I pray that’s all it was.  I hope to God nobody got annoyed and asked them to leave.

If, somehow, this post ever reaches the eyes of that family with the disabled son who wanted praise God and learn everything the priest had to teach: thank you.

Thank you for showing Christ to me.

Please come back next week.

(image via pixabay) 

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