Most of us will feel encouraged this weekend as we hear the readings. All three remind us that God chooses God’s people not by power, fame or wealth, nor stature in the community. God delights in “a people humble and lowly” says the prophet Zephaniah. Psalm 146 proclaims that “the Lord raises up those that were bowed down.” Paul reminds the Corinthians that “You are among those called — not many wise as men account wisdom.” And finally, the Gospel brings the point home with the beatitudes. Jesus counts as “blessed” the poor in spirit, the sorrowing, the lowly and the peacemakers. In other words, the blessed includes those who recognize their need for God and live aware of that need, people like us.
We all vary in our gifts as well as physical and mental capabilities. We can see this most particularly when we gather for Mass. The church buildings in which we worship need to serve the needs of ALL the people’s prayer. The U.S. bishops, starting in 1978, have said it is “essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities….” Renovated churches have taken into consideration that the worshipping community includes people with seeing, hearing or mobility challenges. Front pews or spaces on the ends of rows leave room for wheelchairs and allow access for ministers of Communion to approach them. Ramps or elevators allow people who cannot climb stairs to gain entrance into the building. Devices are available to enhance the listening of people who use hearing aids. In general, we have sought to help everyone feel welcomed and accepted not only through hospitality extended, but also through church design.
Some parish leaders have sought out people with physical challenges to share their gifts at Mass. To enable them to do so, sanctuaries too have been made handicapped accessible. Ramps have made it possible for anyone to enter the sanctuary. Some ambos can be adjusted for someone who stands or someone who is seated in a wheelchair. I have seen blind lectors proclaim readings using Braille, ministers of Communion in wheelchairs and cantors who need braces to stand or for support. I know of a parish that has deaf lectors who proclaim the readings through sign language as an interpreter voices the Scripture for the hearing.
Marty Haugen, in one of his songs, invites us to “build a church where love can dwell.” While accessible churches enable the participation of all, the visibility and service offered by people of differing abilities is even more a sign that “all are welcome in this place.”
Johnston is the former director of worship at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc.