By Laura Ann Phillips
Imagine going to Sunday Mass, with everything apparently quite normal to everybody else. But to you, it’s like a collision course for your senses.
The music and singing seem to drill right through your ears to the centre of your head; the lights sear your eyes as if you’d been staring into the sun. Someone brushes past, barely touching you, but it feels as though a high-voltage cable was thrust into your skin. And that’s right after the scent of every person in the room crowds into your nostrils as though you’d sunk into a pool of smells.
Nobody else seems to understand what you’re feeling, and you can’t communicate it so well. Soon, people around you start looking impatient or angry…
That’s a sample of what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)—a condition in which your five senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, smell, are either very, very sensitive to external stimuli, or not sensitive enough. And it’s common to persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder and similar conditions.
The Catholic Mass is designed to stimulate all five senses, so imagine the sensory overload this must mean for someone with SPD. Bethesda Catholic community understands it.
An amalgam of families and caregivers of persons with disabilities, its ministry promotes the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the life of the Church and, particularly, in liturgical celebrations. In John’s gospel, Jesus heals a paralytic in Bethesda, a name which means ‘house of grace’ or ‘house of mercy’.
Bethesda Community celebrated their third anniversary on Sunday, July 8 with Holy Mass at Holy Trinity RC Church, Arouca. Just over 60 persons attended, and Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris CSSp, significantly, was celebrant. It was under his bishopric that Bethesda came into being, after he made provision for sensory-friendly Masses to be celebrated in his private chapel and, later, in the wider archdiocese.
Sensory-friendly liturgies are tailored for persons with some aspect of SPD. Therefore, persons attending them are asked not to wear perfume or brightly coloured clothes, since these could trigger reactions in someone overly sensitive to scent or colour.
In sensory-friendly liturgies, the congregation sits for the entire Mass because, to an autistic child, standing can send the signal that it’s time to leave, and it can be quite a task to get them to sit down again once roused. During the time to receive Holy Communion, the celebrant or Extra-Ordinary Minister of the Eucharist walks into the congregation to distribute to those who indicate their desire to receive.
Sign language specialists are available at every Mass to serve any member of the deaf community. And, trained volunteers are on hand to attend to any special-needs person, as necessary, giving caregivers the space to focus on the liturgy.
Normally, microphones or sound systems are not used, out of consideration for who can’t tolerate loud noises, with musical instruments and singing also limited. The homily is kept short and the entire liturgy seldom lasts more than 45 minutes, since sitting still for long periods can be difficult for some.
Still, it can be hard to understand what it’s like to live with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism and other similar conditions. So, Bethesda regularly creates opportunities to help others understand, their most recent outreach having been at the Youth Expo on June 23. Their booth featured games and information, but their most popular activity was having persons walk in the shoes of persons with various disabilities and conditions, promoting compassion, patience and understanding.
Bethesda will also host a liturgy school workshop entitled ‘Facilitating Persons With Disabilities’, at which participants will experience walking in the shoes of someone with a disability and learn how the liturgical worship at Mass impacts on the lives of persons with disabilities and their families. The presentations will also feature a theological reflection on the inclusion of persons with disabilities in liturgical worship and the challenges to this inclusion.
The workshop’s target audience is anyone and everyone interested in working with or understanding persons with disabilities, including priests, deacons, catechists, lay ministers, parishioners, teachers and volunteers.
Bethesda would love to have sensory-friendly liturgies in other vicariates, as well, but needs a persons-with-disabilities-friendly church, with wheelchair access to toilets and volunteers willing to be trained to assist such persons.
For additional information, you may contact Bethesda’s co-ordinator, Saira Joseph-La Foucade at 306-5546 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Facebook page.