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White Mass celebrates gifts of Deaf community and people living with disabilities, and how all people need Christ’s healing

During the 13th annual White Mass on Oct. 30, 2022 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory receives offertory gifts from Jeni Stepanek. The annual Mass sponsored by The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington celebrates the gifts and participation of people from the Deaf Community and persons living with disability. This year, the White Mass had an expanded focus to honor the gift of human life in all its stages and to share in the joy of creation. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus Christ heals and cures people with various disabilities, illnesses and diseases, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory noted during his homily at the 13th annual White Mass on Oct. 30. The cardinal pointed out that just as all those individuals received the Lord’s attention and moved His heart, so too Jesus heals and restores to good health all those to this day who are wounded by sin. 

“Above all, Jesus respected the people who came to Him or were brought to him for a cure. He treated them as whole people,” said the cardinal. “...The Messiah comes, not simply to work miraculous cures for those with obvious human difficulties. He comes to heal those whose brokenness is not nearly so obvious, especially to them. In a word, Jesus comes to heal all of us – you and me!”   

Several hundred people filled St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, Maryland, to capacity for the Sunday morning Mass, celebrated for the first time at the Prince George’s County parish. The White Mass is the annual liturgy in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington recognizing the giftedness of all persons who are Deaf or live with a disability. The Mass has the designation of “white” because of that color’s connectedness to one’s baptismal promises. This year, the archdiocesan Office of Deaf and Disabilities Ministry, the Office of Life Issues and the Office of Social Concerns collaborated to expand the outreach of the White Mass, celebrating the baptismal call to holiness and service, the dignity of human life in all its stages, and the importance of caring for God’s creation. 

In attendance were persons of all ages with intellectual and physical disabilities, as well as their families, friends, caregivers, catechists and others who work in special needs ministries at parishes and on the archdiocesan level. 

Among those attending the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills were Maria Izaguirre at right, and her daughter Jamila at left. Maria Izaguirre read the second reading at the Mass.  Her daughter Jamila is Deaf and attends St. Francis Deaf Catholic Church. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)
Del Boland at right and his son David Boland at left pray during the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills.  The Boland Family helps to lead the Faith and Light chapters in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Cardinal Gregory, the main celebrant, was joined in concelebrating the Mass by Father Evelio Menjivar, pastor of St. Mary’s Church; Father Min Seo Park, chaplain of St. Francis Deaf Catholic Church and Gallaudet University campus ministry; as well as several archdiocesan priests and deacons, all wearing white vestments to symbolize the connection to the baptismal promises of all those present.

Father Min Seo Park, the chaplain to the St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church and the Catholic chaplain at Gallaudet University, proclaims the Gospel using American Sign Language during the annual White Mass of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington that was celebrated on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)
Ed Poindexter, who is visually impaired, helps prepare the altar at the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, assisted at left by Deacon Bobby White of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Washington. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

At the beginning of the liturgy, the congregation was blessed with holy water as a memorial of their baptismal vows. The St. Mary’s Parish choir led the congregation in hymns of praise.

Father Evelio Menjivar sprinkles holy water on the congregation during the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, where he serves as pastor. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

“From our sophisticated medical perspective, some folks have ventured to give greater specificity to the illnesses of the people whom Jesus cured. What exactly was the hemorrhage of the woman in Mark’s Gospel, what might have been the cause and contemporary medical name for the deafness in the man in the Gospel and how his speech impediment was associated with his deafness?” Cardinal Gregory said. “...While science might be interested in such data, the faith lessons in these stories are not about past diseases, but about the diseases that you and I still suffer from even as we listen to the healing stories in the Gospel.” 

Although today’s world is one of vast medical achievements, all people are still in need of some kind of healing, the cardinal said. “Even those among us who enjoy robust health also have our illnesses and limitations – whether physical, spiritual or personal,” he said. “Even the youngest and most vibrant young person in Church today suffers from the diseases that sin imparts. We all need the power of Jesus’ healing and saving mission.”

Christina DiSalvo, an American Sign Language interpreter, assists at the annual White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)
In the photo above and the photo below, people use American Sign Language as they participate in the Archdiocese of Washington’s annual White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Cardinal Gregory noted the story in St. Mark’s Gospel when citizens brought a man with a hearing and speech impediment to Jesus. 

“Jesus saw not a problem, but a brother – and even more importantly, Jesus saw a possibility... Jesus saw deeply into the human condition of the citizens. What is more dreadful, the inability to hear or the deafness that comes from hardened hearts? What is worse, the inability of our ears to hear and understand sound, or the deafness of the human spirit to appreciate the needs of our sisters and brothers? What is more debilitating, a tongue that is inoperative or a tongue that is vicious and destructive?” said the cardinal. 

“The Lord of the Gospel healed a man with a problem and his ears and his tongue, but he also allowed the citizens who witnessed His power to have their faith challenged: ‘He has done all things well!! What might He do for me?” he said.

Michael Howard of St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Washington, D.C., bows before the altar and then reads the first reading at the archdiocese’s annual White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Cardinal Gregory went on to praise the Americans with Disabilities Act, a monumental U.S. law passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, as well as guaranteeing them protections and accommodations in all areas of public life.

“We are now more aware, but certainly not sufficiently sensitive, of the needs of those who have disabilities, but whose human spirit and promise are anything but limited,” said Cardinal Gregory, adding that provisions in the law “make it easier for people with disabilities to share in the life of our community.”

At right, Tim Menard prays during the White Mass celebrated on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills. Standing next to him is his father Matthew Menard. Tim Menard read an intercession at the Mass. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

During the White Mass, people who are Deaf and those who live with disability served as lectors and gift bearers. The Gospel was proclaimed entirely in American Sign Language by Father Park. Several archdiocesan Catholics involved in special needs ministry and those supported by special needs ministry who have passed away were remembered in the Prayers of the Faithful, including Patricia and James Sullivan; Mattie J.T. Stepanek; Kathy Buta; Carl, Antoinette and Colleen Ruppert; Tom Draper; Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver; Francis and Cubby LaHood; Colleen Welch; Flynn Fry; Evan Finn Gardner; Gina Marie and Nancy Bleggi; Angela Mayer-Whittington; Maria Gillis; Andrew Vocke and Althea Wallace.

The intercessions were also offered for people living with disabilities, people with mental illness, persons who are Deaf, their family members, and caregivers that their “gifts may be recognized and celebrated, their spirit strengthened, and all barriers removed.”

Angel Vargas Leon receives Communion during the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Jeni Stepanek, the mother of local teen and nationally known poet Mattie J.T. Stepanek who died at age 13 in 2004 from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, attended the 2022 White Mass, as she does every year. On Sunday, Stepanek, who uses a motorized wheelchair due to an adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy, participated in the offertory procession. 

Stepanek described the liturgy as a “beautiful celebration of music and spirituality, recognizing the diverse gifts and God-given purpose of all people. (The homily) was a wonderful reminder of this truth – that we each have a unique gift that is part of God’s plan for creation. It was wonderful to be celebrating back in person again, and wow, St. Mary’s Parish was so welcoming to their many visitors!”

A woman gives the sign of peace to a girl during the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills, Maryland. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

Also in attendance for the Mass were members of the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Guild, which is gathering, organizing and sharing information on the life, virtues, writings, ministry and inspiration of the late young teen for a possible future cause of his canonization.  

“We each and all have challenges of some sort, but we each and all also have strengths and gifts, and a unique purpose created in us by God – a truth that my son Mattie called our ‘Heartsong’ or reason for being,” Stepanek later told the Catholic Standard.

Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory poses for a photo with a youth after the White Mass on Oct. 30 at St. Mary’s Church in Landover Hills. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)