Belonging and the Mission to Build a Culture of Inclusion

We have recently been highlighting various initiatives that are examples of the way in which our first Archdiocesan Synod is being implemented. Today, we turn our attention to Overarching Recommendation Number Five which urges that “the archdiocese and parishes identify, seek out and minister to those not fully involved in the life and mission of the Church, and that efforts be undertaken to ensure the meaningful participation of people with disabilities in all aspects of the life of the Church.”

Yesterday, the archdiocese hosted the seventh annual White Mass which celebrates in a particular way how we each belong in the one body of Christ through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in baptism, each of us with our own unique attributes and gifts a sign of the glory of God.  This Eucharist takes its very name, the White Mass, from the baptismal garment that each of us receives and is charged to cherish unblemished until the coming of the fullness of the kingdom.

Equal in dignity and in mission, attending this joyous liturgy were people who communicate with hands and those who communicate with sounds, those who read via raised dots on a page and those who read via printed ink or pixels on a screen, those with 23 pairs of chromosomes and those with an extra one, those who move about on prosthetics or wheels and others on legs.  A diverse spectrum of disciples were there – and are present in the whole Church – all parts of the same body in the unity of Christ, each of whom has something to give and contribute and each of whom relies on others.

At a convention in Rome this past summer, Pope Francis advocated “an awareness of the possibility to educate in the faith people with even grave or very grave disabilities; and a willingness to consider them as active subjects in the community in which they live.” He spoke of the critical importance of inclusion, of seeing people who might differ in certain ways physically or cognitively not as other or them, but as us.

Our annual White Mass is not just a once-a-year acknowledgement of the gifts those gathered bring to our families, parishes and Church, but is a summons to promote human dignity in the entire life of the Church and also the greater community. The liturgy and other initiatives like #BelongingStartsHere point toward making all of our parishes, schools and neighborhoods places where all persons in their diversity feel welcomed as contributing members without seeking to limit or patronize these sisters and brothers of ours.

One of the most important teaching moments in the Mass is the renewal of our baptismal promises. In the sacrament, we are born anew, receiving new life as we pass from the old order into a whole new creation in which we are alive in the Spirit. Baptism also makes us family. We are constituted as God’s family, God’s people – his Church.

We gather not as individuals isolated from each other and related only to God, but precisely as God’s family related to each other and through the Church. For this reason too we want to be sure that every one of our parishes is a place of belonging for all its members. We celebrate Eucharist as a faith family because it is here that we find our identity, our unity and our very being as members of Christ’s body, members of his Church.

The White Mass and every liturgy in which persons with differing abilities and gifts can participate call particular attention to the beauty of the harmony of God’s family.  At the summer convention for people with disabilities, Pope Francis told a young person who asked why some people are afraid of differences that this diversity enriches our lives.  “Difference is actually precious,” he said, “because I have one thing, and you have another, and with these two we make something more beautiful, greater.”

Fear and prejudice are often born of ignorance. Today in our nation, those negative responses to people with differing abilities are perhaps beginning to fade as public awareness is raised, just as racism faded as people came to know those of other races. For example, a reality television show depicting a group of young adults with Down Syndrome in their day-to-day lives – dating, working, going to school, running a business – recently won an Emmy award.

Progress toward a culture of inclusion is being made, but much more remains to be done.  The White Mass and other work of our archdiocesan ministries are steps in that process.  Each of us have a role to play too, each of us as missionary disciples in our particular diversity and unique gifts, can be that light which frees our community from the darkness.