Urging Catholics to "never forget nor neglect to welcome" all of God's people, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Washington highlighted the inclusivity of Jesus during a special White Mass for people with disabilities.
"Jesus is always inclusive in his approach with people, always finding ways to include all people into discipleship," Archbishop Gregory said in his homily during the 11th annual Mass Oct. 18 at St. Francis Deaf Catholic Church in suburban Landover Hills, Maryland.
Sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington's Department of Special Needs Ministries, the Mass provided an opportunity for a renewal of baptismal promises and a recognition of the gifts of persons with disabilities.
The Mass has the designation "white" because of the color's connection to the baptismal promises of Christians. Traditionally, participants at the Mass wear white to signify the unity within that bond. Because of coronavirus restrictions, a limited audience attended the Mass in person, but others were able to watch via livestream.
Archbishop Gregory spoke about how Christ taught people to love one another despite their differences.
"(Jesus) taught (his disciples) that everyone was welcomed into his companionship," he said. "He chose to eat with sinners and social outcasts. He chose to spend time with children and the elderly. ... He picked disciples who were not perfect and sometimes not too courageous.
"He liked to make sure that everyone could approach him and find in him a source of welcome and blessing."
In the same way today, Archbishop Gregory said, Christ calls for inclusivity.
Through the Mass, he added, the archdiocese "publicly and gratefully acknowledges the presence and the gifts of our brothers and sisters with special needs and or disabilities."
"We admit we are simply incomplete without you," he continued. "Your dignity as God's children is a proud legacy that the church must never forget nor neglect to welcome."
Several members of the disability community participated in the liturgy.
Eddie Poindexter, who is blind and a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Washington, recited the first reading from memory; Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, read the responsorial psalm; Hector Reynoso, who is deaf and attends St. Francis Deaf Catholic Church, signed the second reading in American Sign Language; and the prayer of the faithful was read by Felipe Hall, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Beltsville, Maryland, who is the parent of a child with multiple disabilities.
Following the Mass, the Department of Special Needs Ministries hosted a virtual community gathering on Zoom to watch a recorded question-and-answer session with five members of the deaf and the disability communities and Archbishop Gregory.
Led by Mary O'Meara, the department's executive director, the group discussed the Mass and the message from the archbishop.
"It is very important that you know how grateful we are for the gifts you bring to the church of the Archdiocese of Washington," Archbishop Gregory said as the session started.
"All persons are made in the image and likeness of God. We are interdependent," he said. "Our church is not complete without all the members being welcomed, celebrated and empowered, to share their gifts and talents as disciples of Jesus Christ. We as a church need you."
Margaret Breihan, a member of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, is studying for a master's degree at The Catholic University of America. She told the archbishop, "We are closest to God when we are fully included and embraced by the church. I know personally for myself, my faith blossoms with outreach to those experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. My faith is what inspired me to pursue a career in social work."
She then asked what the archdiocese can do to increase service opportunities for people with disabilities "so we are not only served by the church but have the opportunity to grow in faith and serve others."
Archbishop Gregory responded by calling upon priests and lay pastoral ministers to "ensure there is access and invitation for people with disabilities to serve others."
"Your desire to serve should inspire us all to seek the fullness of our faith in serving others," he said. "There are indeed so many opportunities to serve others across this archdiocese, but I would say we must open our own eyes, hearts and minds to welcome the gifts of people with disabilities as ministers, not only (people) to be ministered to."
In a particular way this year, O'Meara told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, many people have "had a little taste during COVID-19" of the isolation that many who are deaf or living with a disability face throughout their lifetime.
"May we look to them as a way to end all forms of isolation," she said, "to ensure that no one feels isolated or in the margins."