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Churches need to welcome people of all abilities

Chad Rovira and Christine Carpenter served as readers; Jim Dwyer and Kristen Cipriani were greeters; Maisy Exerard and Norman Demolle Jr. brought up the offertory gifts.

While those duties might not sound exceptional, each  adult who took part in the Oct. 9 Mass at St. Philip Neri in Metairie has a disability.

They are members of the Commission for Persons with Disabilities recently reconstituted through the Family Life Apostolate Office in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“The mission (of the group) is to get disabled individuals more involved in the liturgy,” said St. Philip Neri Deacon Tommy Lotz, a commission member. “It’s to make members realize that just because they are disabled, they don’t have to be outcasts. They can get involved in the liturgy. We are trying to change that perception. All those at the Mass were perfect examples.”

Msgr. Harry Bugler, pastor at St. Philip, was the Mass celebrant and was happy to be the host. He warmly welcomed and acknowledged members of the group.

“We are mindful that we are all God’s people,” he said. His words echoed the statement that the commission used on the Mass booklet: “We are all handicapped. Whether we use our free will and choose a state of life or an action or we acquire a disability, we are all people of God. As members of God’s family, we support each other through our display of love.”

God will provide

Deacon Lotz, the homilist, mentioned how God supplies everything we need. He said while people with disabilities surely struggle, “every day they know that God will provide what they need.”

Janet Pesce – who is legally blind – was one of the 30 members of the Commission for Persons with Disabilities  prior to Hurricane Katrina and someone instrumental in reviving the group. She served as a cantor at the Mass at St. Philip and has been in its choir for 14 years.

Inclusion in Catholic activities and championing the idea of accommodations for those with physical disabilities at churches – such as wheelchair ramps – were the group’s main thrusts from the beginning.

“It was something that allowed people with disabilities to be encouraged to participate in church activities,” Pesce said of the commission.

Planning for bigger things

Now its resurrection includes bimonthly meetings held at St. Philip Neri and quarterly Masses. Yet, Pesce envisions something bigger.

“We are trying to get each pastor to name a coordinator so people can go to that person to learn how they can participate in Catholic communities,” she said. She is the  coordinator at St. Philip Neri, where she has been a parishioner with her husband, George, for 41 years.

It was Pesce who brought Deacon Lotz into the group. She heard him give a homily on Jesus healing a blind man and thought he could be an asset to the committee. He was delighted to join and thought the invitation was providential considering he works with nonprofit agencies that help people.

“I work with the disabled, and I think it was a good fit,” Deacon Lotz said.

Deacons Lotz and Drea Capaci, director of the Family Life Apostolate that oversees the commission, started to revive the group earlier this year. They are taking it a step at a time, beginning with a pilot program in the East Jefferson Deanery of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

First, a letter was sent to all pastors in the East Jefferson deanery in July, asking them to identify a coordinator in their parish who could serve as a liaison between the parish and commission. Approximately 12 pastors responded, and Deacons Capaci and Lotz have worked closely with those who volunteered.

Feeling of inclusion

Since St. Philip hosted the first Mass, Deacon Lotz coordinated most aspects of participation from group members. He helped bring the lectionary to Christine Carpenter, 42, so she could proclaim the second reading.

Carpenter, a parishioner at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Belle Chasse, was born with Spina bifida and walked with braces for 28 years before resorting to a wheelchair permanently in 1998. For years, she had been involved in Handicapped Encounter Christ, and recently she joined the commission.

“I feel this will help me grow more in my faith and more toward the Lord,” Carpenter said. “I am just as ordinary as anybody else.”

After the Mass, her former teacher – Beth Johnson, past president and principal at Archbishop Chapelle High School – congratulated her and offered a hug. The two reminisced.

Others who participated in the Mass were equally grateful to take part. Phil Lundgren, active for many years in Carnival circles, was an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Diagnosed after Hurricane Katrina with Parkinson’s disease, he says he tries to keep it in check with medication. With his family surrounding him at the Mass, he distributed Communion.

The Mass will rotate quarterly to other parishes in the East Jefferson deanery for the first year and expand to other deaneries in the archdiocese after that. As the Mass moves to other parishes, deacons and pastors there will take charge, Deacon Lotz said. The next Mass is scheduled Jan. 22 at St. Christopher.

“The mission of Christ is to enable everybody to be fully active to participate in liturgy,” Deacon Lotz said. 

For details on the Commission for Persons with Disabilities, call the Family Life Apostolate office at 861-6247.

            Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.

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