Thirty years ago, the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a Pastoral Statement on People with Disability, illustrating that, because of their baptism into the Catholic Church, Catholics with disabilities had every right to exercise their faith, to be integrated into the worship of the church and to be accommodated by their churches.
Now, every year, in order to recognize those goals, churches in the Syracuse area hold a Disability Awareness Celebration.
This year, the celebration was held at St. Joseph the Worker Church in Liverpool.
“We chose St. Joseph’s for this year’s mass for several reasons,” said Fred Fusco, director of the Offices for People with Disabilities in the Syracuse Diocese. “It can accommodate people with disabilities, it’s centrally located and near the New York State Thruway and one of our advisory board members is a parishioner and was willing to take on the work of organizing it.”
The mass was part of Disability Awareness Weekend, a Diocese-wide event that takes place annually.
“It’s a time each year when we ask each parish of the diocese to call special attention to the needs and abilities of parishioners who are disabled and their families,” Fusco said. “For the weekend, our diocesan committee prepares a packet of materials that get sent to each parish for its use in the weekend liturgy. The packet consists of four bulletin announcements to begin four weeks before the weekend, music for the mass, suggestions for homilies, Prayer of the Faithful and other ideas — like making a banner — that we hope will add to the celebration.”
The event itself, which took place on Sunday Sept. 7, featured biblical readings by people with disabilities, liturgy led by Bishop Thomas Costello (in place of Bishop James Moynihan, who is recovering from surgery) and a homily by Fusco focusing on the anniversary of the issuance of the pastoral statement.
“On Nov. 16, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on People with Disability,” Fusco said. “The anniversary is a reason for us to sing joyfully to the Lord.”
Fusco said the celebration is held not only to recognize those parishioners with disabilities, but also to remind people that all of those goals outlined in the statement have not yet been reached.
“While we’ve made progress, we still have a long way to go,” Fusco said. “Only 33 percent of people surveyed said they would be comfortable around a person who is classified as mentally retarded. Seventy-three percent said they would feel awkward or ill-at-ease around a person with a mental illness. That’s why attempts to bring housing for people with disabilities into communities so often meets with strong opposition.”
The readings pointed out ways to address those issues: Ezekiel 33:7-9 encouraged people to educate others. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus told his disciples to advocate for what they believed. And in Romans 13:8-10, St. Paul advised the Romans to act out of love.
Fusco carried those messages into his homily.
“You must educate others,” he said to the parishioners in attendance at Sunday’s service. “You must act with love, and you must advocate for people with disabilities.”
One way to do that, he said, is to form advisory boards in each church that will communicate with his office and the diocese. Right now, there is an advisory board whose members are culled from the seven counties that make up the Syracuse Diocese. These seven counties are clustered into four regions, each of which has its own advisory board.
But in order to truly welcome the disabled into the faith community and to recognize that they are fully capable of worshiping, Fusco said it is necessary for each church to have a board and, if possible, to appoint a volunteer who will ensure that the needs and issues of disabled parishioners are addressed.
“There are a quarter of a million Catholics in the Syracuse Diocese and 142 parishes,” Fusco said. “We ought to be able to draw from those ranks. We need to be determined to educate and advocate with love, as Jesus tells us to. We need to remind people that we are one flock that serves a single shepherd.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.