Jeni Stepanek, in a wheelchair, celebrates with artist Jimilu Mason during the recent installation of the statue of her son Mattie and his dog Micah, at the park in Rockville named in honor of Mattie Stepanek, an internationally known poet and peace advocate who died in 2004 just before he turned 14.
Jeni Stepanek, in a wheelchair, celebrates with artist Jimilu Mason during the recent installation of the statue of her son Mattie and his dog Micah, at the park in Rockville named in honor of Mattie Stepanek, an internationally known poet and peace advocate who died in 2004 just before he turned 14.
When Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl celebrates Mass at St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel this Sunday, he will be coming to Shaun Hall's parish home. Archbishop Wuerl celebrates the Partnership Mass with Persons with Disabilities at 2 p.m. It is fitting that the Mass will be held at Shaun's parish.

Shaun was born with a benign brain tumor, and became multiply disabled; he died from complications arising from his condition when he was a teen-ager. During his life, Shaun received a firm grounding in faith and the sacraments through St. Mary of the Mills' religious education program. Later the parish school opened its doors to students with special needs. Shaun's courage and faith while living out his challenges touched many lives in and around Laurel. His parents, David and Cheryl Hall, began SHAUN Ministries to provide respite retreats for parents and respite training for caregivers (shaun.ministries@verizon.net).

It is also fitting that the Mass is held this Nov. 30. This month marks the 30th anniversary of a critical testament to Christ and His Church, the Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on Persons with Disabilities (www. nncpd.org). The pastoral created a blueprint for a welcoming and inclusive church. It was such a foundational piece of thinking and writing that in 1990 it was read on the floor of the U.S. Senate while that body was crafting the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So this Sunday, the 30th, we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of this landmark change agent.

You could say that persons with disabilities are change agents in our society. A Jesuit brother I know tells the story of how he was at a reception in New York for Iraq war veterans. As the vets were leaving, one of them who had recently become disabled grabbed this brother's only hand and held on tight. "I don't know where I am," the man said. "You're in midtown Manhattan," replied the Jesuit, pragmatically. "No," the man said, "I don't know where I am on this planet. I don't know how to relate to my wife, my kids, my boss." And he wouldn't let go of the Jesuit brother, as if that handshake was keeping him grounded, on the planet.

What do any of us have to give in such a situation? Jesuit Brother Rick Curry, who was born without one arm, shared this story to describe how his National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped (www.ntwh.org) started a "Wounded Warrior" program for disabled war veterans. But at that moment when his one and only hand was locked in with this stranger, Brother Rick says he knew that all we have to give one another is the love of Christ. All we have, really, is our love of Jesus Ð and His love for us.

Another change agent was Mary Virginia Merrick. She was part of my parish, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington. In the 1880s, Mary had a pleasant life with her family, living in Chevy Chase, Md., just a few blocks from our church. As a teenager, she had an accident and became disabled, spending the rest of her life in a reclining position, in a wheelchair or in bed. Her body, barely 80 pounds, was supported by a heavy steel and leather jacket.

At Christmastime in 1884, Miss Merrick learned that a young boy named Paul wanted a red wagon for Christmas, but Paul knew his family was too poor to provide one. Miss Merrick suggested Paul write a letter to the Christ Child for the wagon, the Christ Child being "the giver of all good things." Paul returned later with his own letter and more letters from his siblings and playmates. Merrick got right to work, bringing together her sisters and friends, and every request was filled, each gift labeled "From the Christ Child." These acts of kindness gave Mary's life new purpose, and in 1887 she began the Christ Child Society, which now serves needy children all over the country. Merrick, it has been said, "took her cross and out of it fashioned a bridge over which she and others could walk their way to God." Her cause for sainthood is now under consideration.

Walking your way to God might seem a strange metaphor if you are in wheelchair, like Mattie Stepanek. Mattie was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. At age three he began writing poetry Ð and he never stopped. By the time he died at age 13, he had published five books of poetry, all of them bestsellers. Mattie wrote about what was on his heart, a peacemaker's heart. Like all of us, he was blessed with gifts, only his were housed in a body with significant physical challenges. He harnessed his own life experiences and deep spirituality, and in the process helped all of us see the world in a fresh way.

At Mattie's funeral Mass at St. Catherine Laboure in Wheaton, former President Jimmy Carter said, "We have known kings and queens, and we've known presidents and prime ministers, but the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known in my life is Mattie Stepanek. His life philosophy was 'Remember to play after every storm!'" Carter collaborated with Stepanek on Just Peace, a blueprint for "Mattie's Peace Network," a testament of peace and hope to communities around the country. Like Mary Virginia Merrick, Mattie's life work lives on. Recently, a park was dedicated in his honor at King Farm in Rockville, and his words are everywhere, on benches and bricks, even in audio recordings.

Many others in our Archdiocese have considered not "What am I to do?" or "Why me?" but instead have come up with some creative, Christ-like responses to challenging situations.

Take for example Francesca Pellegrino, who started the Blessed Sacrament disAbilities Ministry. She had a dream that her son Alex, who has a disability, would someday be enrolled in a Catholic school, a school where he could pray and practice his faith. Alex, who has mild cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, is still waiting for that placement, but in the meantime, Francesca started the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, Inc. (www.ccse-maryland.org), helping Catholic schools in our area enroll and meet the educational needs of students with intellectual disabilities.

Since the inception of its grant-making program in 2006, CCSE has awarded $250,000 to area schools, including two grants to St. Mary of the Mills School.

Others living out the "Christ Our Hope" message are Dan and Cubby LaHood, parishioners at St. John the Evangelist in Silver Spring. They established a respite facility in their home in 1983 to provide care for children with severe multiple disabilities.

The LaHoods, Lay Missionaries of Charity, began their ministry after their own child with a disability died at birth.

Their "St. Joseph's House" is a second home, a safe haven to many families who have few options for day and weekend care. (http://saintjo-sephshouse.net/Home_Page.html). But the LaHoods do more than just caring for physical needs. Catholic children with disabilities often don't receive the sacraments in a timely way for a variety of reasons. So the LaHoods began a catechesis training program, where young persons have received the many blessings of Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist and Confirmation.

In the third paragraph of the pastoral statement, the bishops write: "Scripture teaches us that 'any other commandment there may be [is] all summed up in this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Romans13:9) In His wisdom, Jesus said, "as yourself."

Our church is a single body of Christ: one flock, one shepherd. Join Archbishop Wuerl this Sunday at 2 p.m. at St. Mary of the Mills, as we celebrate together.

(Peg Kolm is the Coordinator for the Office of Ministry for Persons with Disabilities, Department for Social Concerns, Archdiocese of Washington. For more information, call 301-853-4560 or email at kolmm@adw.org .)