Special Mass in Utica sponsored by Disabilities Ministry
By Dyann Nashton
Sun contributing writer
When Patty Femia tells her son, Vincent, in sign language that they will be going to church, he immediately puts his hands in the position to receive Holy Eucharist. The 27-year-old parishioner of St. Patrick’s/St. Anthony’s in Chadwicks is diagnosed as developmentally delayed with autistic tendencies, Patty said. He is non-verbal, but his love for Mass speaks volumes.
Last Sunday, Vincent carried a banner in the entrance procession and brought up the offertory gifts in a special Mass for Disability Awareness at Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica. He was among many with disabilities, their families and caregivers as well as the Catholic community as a whole. “It was a beautiful experience,” Patty said. According to Father Charles Vavonese, director of Disabilities Ministry for the Syracuse Diocese, the Mass did just what it was intended to do by the Diocesan Disabilities Advisory Commission. It is the job of this ministry to raise awareness of disabilities in the diocese, he explained. “We seek to integrate people with disabilities into church life and educate people on disability awareness,” he said.
The commission carries this out in a number of ways. Among them is the Mass for Disability Awareness which takes place annually at rotating parishes throughout the diocese’s four regions. The commission also makes presentations to groups within the diocese, including Confirmation classes, he said.
“There is a reality that we all become disabled at some point in our lives – some of us sooner than others and some are affected more subtly or more forcefully. Think of the number of people requiring eyeglasses or having mobility issues as they age. It is in our best interest to think in terms of inclusion,” he said.
Worshipers with disabilities were well represented throughout the Mass. Besides Vincent, Dominick Wentz, a young parishioner from St. Paul’s in Whitesboro, helped carry the felt banner as the Mass began. It read “The One Body of Christ” and depicted colorful figures of varying types of ability. Mark Rocci, from St. Patrick’s/St. Anthony, and Kayla Jones, from St. John’s in New Hartford, were by Vincent’s side to participate in the offertory. Mark helped read the petitions. He was joined by Jen Laclair his special needs religion teacher from his home parish.
“It’s not hard to include people with disabilities in the Liturgy,” Father Vavonese said. “We were able to do that Sunday.”
At the Mass, Mary L. Martin’s fingertips glided across the words of the second reading in Braille as she read. Martin is a parishioner of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel in Utica. She is on the regular rotation of a long list of lectors at her parish, she said.
Larry Hagan attended the Mass and commented, “She proclaimed it so beautifully.” Hagan ministers at the local nursing homes for Our Lady of Lourdes Church. He said he was doing a Communion service at the Charles T. Sitrin Healthcare Center in New Hartford when he met resident Lou Fraccola, a quadraplegic. Hagan said that he eventually convinced Fraccola to serve as lector during these services. “Nobody can lector like Lou. It’s his territory!” Hagan said. This made him the perfect candidate to share his gift by offering the first reading at the Mass for Disability Awareness.
In the homily, Father Joseph Salerno described how the Apostles needed to actually see Jesus’ wounds to believe he was risen. “Jesus met them right where they needed him. That’s what he does today. He meets us where we are with our abilities and disabilities,” Father Salerno said. The first thing Jesus says to the Apostles is “Peace,” Father Salerno added. “Peace is not the absence of conflict, challenges or burdens. It is through these things as well as our joys, grace and strength that we give witness…. No matter what our challenges, we can have peace in our hearts.”
This was an especially potent message for family members and caregivers who attended the Mass. Susan Zumpano and Janice Hyde, both of Utica, said the Mass was reassuring to them as they care for disabled family members. “For us caregivers, it’s a lot of work,” Hyde noted. Zumpano echoed these comments and said, “This Mass is so inspirational. We need this.”
Vincent’s mother, Patty, said, “I like that everybody gets together for this Mass and it’s interesting to learn about all the different kinds of disabilities there are,” she said. In this way, the Mass helps break down some of the walls of isolation that surround those with disabilities and their families.
Father Vavonese said the disabled often feel alienated or unwelcome. “It’s not that they are not welcome. It’s just that other people don’t know how to welcome them,” he said. The commission’s slideshow presentation touches on etiquette and specific ways to welcome the disabled into the church community.
“People open their hearts with new eyes. Our vision is incomplete when we’re not talking to all of God’s children,” Father Vavonese said.