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Updated: White Mass celebrates the faith and gifts of people with disabilities

(This expanded article includes more information at the end about St. Rose of Lima Parish's Adaptive Religious Education program.) 

Celebrating the giftedness of every person living with disabilities, participants at this year’s archdiocesan White Mass proclaimed – in word and deed – that all people regardless of their differences are valued in the life of the Church and beloved children of God. 

“We want to bring awareness of the responsibility we all have to ensure God’s great banquet of life, love, dignity, friendship and communion, in the here and now, is accessible to all,” said Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar, during his homily at the 14th annual White Mass. “Yes, we want to assert that ‘we are our brothers and sisters’ keepers’ and their best cheerleaders.”

The Oct. 15 liturgy drew hundreds of attendees from all walks of life, filling St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg to capacity for the Sunday morning Mass, held for the first time at the upper Montgomery County parish. The White Mass is the yearly 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. The archdiocesan Office of Deaf and Disabilities Ministry, the Office of Life Issues and the Office of Social Concerns have collaborated in recent years to expand the outreach of the White Mass, celebrating the baptismal call of all Catholics to holiness and service. 

Bishop Menjivar, the main celebrant, was joined in concelebrating the Mass by Father Agustin Mateo Ayala, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish; 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. 

In attendance were persons of different ages with intellectual and physical disabilities, as well as their families, friends, caregivers, catechists, fellow parishioners, and others who work in special needs parish ministries, many wearing white to symbolize the connection to their baptismal promises and the bonds of community shared in Baptism. 

Bishop Menjivar blessed the congregation at the start of the liturgy with holy water as a memorial of their baptismal vows. The St. Rose of Lima Parish choir led the congregation in hymns of praise.

Reflecting on the day’s gospel (Matthew 22:1-10), Bishop Menjivar said Jesus Christ uses the parable of the wedding banquet of the king’s son “to symbolize the happiness, the joyful sharing, the encounter, the communion and the intimacy to which God invites us all.”

The bishop continued, “(In the time of Christ), the disabled were often on the fringes of society, begging on the margins just to get enough to eat. Jesus is throwing the doors open, and 2,000 years later, we should be doing the same. Because the Kingdom of God isn’t just about heaven and the afterlife, it’s about the here and now.”

Geraldo Castillo provides American Sign Language interpretation at the Oct. 15 White Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

During the White Mass, people who are Deaf and those who live with disabilities served as lectors and gift bearers. The gospel was proclaimed entirely in American Sign Language by Father Park. Included in the intercessions were prayers 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.”

Father Min Seo Park, chaplain of St. Francis Deaf Catholic Church and Gallaudet University campus ministry, gives Communion to Clare Kearney at the Oct. 15 White Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Several archdiocesan Catholics involved in special needs ministry and those supported by special needs ministry who have passed away were also remembered in the Prayers of the Faithful: 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, Althea Wallace and John Doughtery. 

Jeni Stepanek – the mother of local Catholic teen and nationally-known poet Mattie J.T. Stepanek, who died at age 13 in 2004 from a rare form of muscular dystrophy – attends the liturgy every year, using a motorized wheelchair due to an adult-onset form of muscular dystrophy. “(This year’s) White Mass was another beautiful gathering, celebrating the God-given purpose of all creation…It was good to see so many people with diverse and unique gifts and talents participating in the service,” she said.

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 also attended the Mass. 

Stepanek has fond memories of going to Mass many years ago at St. Rose with her son, Mattie. She recalled her son borrowing a book on the saints from the parish library, which later comforted and inspired him during his long hospital stays. The 20-year anniversary Mass of Mattie Stepanek’s passing will be celebrated in June at St. Rose of Lima Parish. “(Today’s Mass) feels like one of those full circle spiritual moments,” she said.

At the Oct. 15 White Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar receives offertory gifts from Anthony Pedone at center. At left is Sherry Moitoza, the parish’s director of social concerns. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

One shining example of St. Rose of Lima’s outreach to those with special needs is the parish’s Accommodating Hearts Ministry, which brings the adult residents with developmental disabilities of nearby St. Rose House into the life of the parish by helping them not only attend Mass, but also serve as lectors, ushers and altar servers.

Additionally, St. Rose of Lima Parish is one of the first parishes in the nation to inaugurate an Adaptive Religious Education program, which seeks to educate young parishioners with disabilities in the Catholic faith and include them as full members in the sacramental life of the Church. For the parish’s outreach to those with special needs, St. Rose of Lima was the recipient of the Opening Doors Award presented by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

After the White Mass celebrated at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg on Oct. 15, altar server Pia Gueco joins Father Agustin Mateo Ayala, St. Rose’s pastor, in the closing procession. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Under the supervision of adult parish catechists, high school-age faith mentors are paired up with a student with disabilities between first and 12th grades to offer one-on-one catechesis, according to Sherry Moitoza, the parish’s director of social concerns, who helped launch the program nearly a decade ago. 

“We realized early on that everybody has the ability to learn and grow in their faith,” Moitoza said. “And everybody has a different way of learning.” 

This year, there are 24 special needs youth in the Adaptive Religious Ed program – the largest group yet, with about 15 teen volunteer mentors. A spiritual support group for parents and sibling religious ed classes are held at the same time on Sunday afternoons.

“We are so blessed to have so many people in the parish working with those with disabilities,” said Moitoza, adding that the teen faith mentors grow in their own Catholic faith through their participation.  “Sharing their faith journey deepens their journey as well.”

Isabella Morano, a 17-year-old senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, serves as a parish Adaptive Faith Mentor. Wearing a red t-shirt with the words, “Todas Son Bienvenidos! All Are Welcome!” worn by all the teen faith mentors for the Mass, Morano describes Libby, a 14-year-old girl in a wheelchair, whom she has mentored for the past two years. On a weekly basis, they read a faith-based lesson, talk, work on a craft and sit together at Sunday Mass.

“She is just the most amazing girl,” she said. “From that first interaction we had, it kept drawing me back and I look forward to it every week,” said Morano, who plans to major in occupational therapy in college as a result of her parish service on behalf of youngsters with disabilities.

 “God is so amazing. He’s allowed me to do this. We are called to treat everyone the same. I always think of Jesus’s words, ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of mine, you did for me,’” she said.