Ninth annual White Mass celebrates dignity of people with disabilities
Oct. 30, 2018
During the ninth annual White Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington on Oct. 28, Msgr. Charles Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington, said just as Jesus healed the blind man in that day’s Gospel, we all need to be healed so we can see the dignity of people with disabilities.
“If we are not careful, we can be that blind person,” he said. “We see disability and we don’t see dignity. If we are not careful, we pity, rather than love or esteem.”
With that new sight comes responsibility, Msgr. Pope said, noting that seeing can sometimes challenge us to change long-held attitudes.
“When we start to see more as God sees, we can’t hide out anymore,” he said, noting that once we see the dignity of people with disabilities, “it might mean we need to change. It might mean we need to make room.”
As an example of people with special needs who have incredible gifts, Msgr. Pope mentioned Mattie Stepanek, a boy who died in 2004 just before his 14th birthday, after living with a rare neuromuscular disease called Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy. In his short lifetime, Stepanek was dedicated to spreading the message that God created each person with a purpose. He wrote and published six collections of poetry, which became New York Times bestsellers.
“He just believed God spoke into his heart,” said Mattie’s mom, Jeni Stepanek, who lives with the same disease that Mattie had. The disease was diagnosed after she gave birth to her four children, who all inherited the disease and died at early ages.
“He believed some of those messages were for him to help him through his own burdens,” she explained. “He also believed [God] put messages in his heart to shape in his own words.”
The main message that Mattie wanted to share, she said, is “hope is real, peace is possible, life is worthy.”
Stepanek, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, told the Catholic Standard that day was a special one for Mattie, because it was the feast of St. Jude Thaddaeus, whom he chose as his Confirmation saint. It was also the first day that “Mattie’s Prayer” was made public by the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Guild, an organization that is gathering information about Mattie’s life to prepare a potential cause for his canonization.
The logo that the guild has chosen is a purple heart made out of Mattie’s fingerprints, with a music note and a cross on top. It traces its roots back to the very first White Mass, which was started by Cardinal Donald Wuerl in 2010 as an occasion to recognize the dignity of people with disabilities and celebrate the gifts they offer to the Church and to society. At that first Mass, Cardinal Wuerl asked everyone to raise their thumb in the air, explaining that every person’s fingerprint is unique, just like God’s plan for each of them.
By creating the White Mass, “Cardinal Wuerl has given an amazing gift to those with disabilities,” Stepanek said. “There is a Mass to remind them, ‘You matter.’”
She particularly noted how the Mass gives people with disabilities the opportunity to serve as altar servers, lectors, gift bearers, and ushers. The second reading on Oct. 28 was read in American Sign Language, and the entire Mass was interpreted. During the Mass, Stepanek participated by reading some of the intercessions.
“People with disabilities don’t have to be served – we can serve others,” she said, noting how the White Mass sends the message, “…This Mass is for you. You have a place of service. It is including you fully.”
During the Mass, people wear white to remember the bonds of community shared through Baptism. At the beginning of the Mass, Cardinal Donald Wuerl blessed and sprinkled holy water on the congregation to further remind them of that sacrament.
Samara Njoku, a 10th grader with autism who read some of the intercessions, said she enjoyed participating in the White Mass, because “I was able to speak up for myself.”
“At first I was nervous, but now I felt very strong,” she said.
Her mom, Donna Njoku, also read part of the intercessions. She approached the pastor at their parish, St. Hugh of Grenoble in Greenbelt, a few years ago about finding ways to support families who have children with special needs, and this year, the parish is beginning an adaptive religious education program, with a parent support group that Njoku helps lead. The parents meet while their children are in class to discuss their challenges and support each other.
The family has been a part of the parish since 1996, and Njoku said “to see this coming to fruition now – it is joy to me…parents know they are a part of the [parish] family.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Mary O’Meara, the executive director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington, thanked Cardinal Wuerl for everything he has done for people with disabilities.
“Thank you for welcoming and valuing the gifts of every person in the Archdiocese of Washington,” she said, adding that he has created a space “where each person is celebrated.”
As he concluded the celebration, Cardinal Wuerl noted how they had used the word “special” a lot during that Mass to refer to special needs, special gifts, and special ministry, but he wanted to point out “one other special reality we all share.”
“We have a special relationship to the Lord Jesus because we’ve been baptized and are His adopted siblings,” he said. “Every time we celebrate this White Mass, let us remember how special every person in this cathedral is.”
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