As a society, there is a renewed awareness of the need to acknowledge the value of the diversity of our human family. It is encouraging to see more and more people calling for our culture to embrace all people, to draw them into the fabric of social life, and treat them as equal, full and active participants in the community. Yet, perhaps the most marginalized segment of society has been largely left out of the discussion.
Historically, persons with disabilities have found themselves if not excluded, then limited from society – on the outside looking in and seen as “other,” rather than as members of the community. Too often are they made to feel unwelcome in places and activities that are routine parts of everyday life for their “typical” neighbors. Too often do they face in society attitudes that disregard their human dignity and the positive contributions they have to offer.
While some progress has been made, much more needs to be done. For a long time we talked about persons with disabilities in terms of access, such as providing sign interpreters or ramps under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but what we need to see now is a culture of belonging and full inclusion. Our neighborhoods, schools, government agencies and our entire community should be places where everyone in their diversity – including physical, intellectual, cognitive and mental diversity – feels welcomed as contributing members without limiting or patronizing them.
One step in that process is the annual White Mass hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, which will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, October 22, at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
Named for the white garment worn at baptism, this liturgy celebrates the gifts and giftedness of all persons in their physical, intellectual or developmental uniqueness as integral members of the community. It is a beautiful expression of a welcoming culture where no one is an afterthought and everyone participates in the life of the community: People who are Deaf or have a disability serve as lectors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, gift bearers and they lead prayers.
Beyond being a celebration of the harmony of God’s family, the White Mass is also a summons to dialogue and action to promote human dignity and inclusivity in the greater community. Human life is like a great orchestra, marked by variety and also marked by limitations. We are all different in the way we look or sound. We each have things we can do and things we cannot do. Each of us has our own qualities. And in this is beauty which benefits us all.
This difference is precious, Pope Francis reminds us. “Everyone brings his or her own, what God gave them, to enrich others.” As public awareness is raised to the need to overcome prejudice and exclusion in society, it is crucial that we treasure too as full and equal participants those who might differ in certain ways physically or cognitively.
Belonging starts here. We are all equal in dignity and we all have gifts to offer, even if some of us need support to participate more fully. We want all persons to belong. We need all persons to belong. Persons with disabilities are a positive presence in society. Ensuring that everyone with their uniqueness truly belongs starts with each one of us.
Mary O’Meara is the Executive Director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington.