It’s the middle of the Gospel. One boy lets out a high pitched “eek” as his chair scrapes against the floor. Another has a stockpile of Men’s Health magazines next to him, while a little girl in a green dress runs up and down the aisles. A tall boy with blonde hair who has Autism sniffs the priest’s robe.
St. Agnes Cathedral held its special needs mass last Saturday, as it has done every fourth Saturday of each month for the past 10 years. As Autism Awareness Month approaches, Father Ryan Creamer said he wanted families to feel welcomed to celebrate their faith without fearing embarrassment if their child acts out during the service.
“I have newspapers saved from 30 years ago when I used to fight for my son’s right to participate in normal activities, even though he was different from all the other kids,” Diana Cacopardo, whose son suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorder, said. “I almost became a nun, so my faith is obviously very important to me, and it’s wonderful to feel so comfortable with my son at mass.”
People with developmental delays, behavioral issues and physical challenges, ranging in age from kindergarteners to adults, stand at the altar and read previously assigned parts of the Old and New Testaments that are easy for them to understand. The priest asks simple questions to hold the children’s attention.
Only fifteen Catholic churches on Long Island offer masses specifically for the disabled.
“[After the wafer and wine are put on the altar] we all go up to the altar table and that part of the service is quite intimate, quite enjoyable, and quite different,” Eric Waxman, head of special needs masses at St. James Roman Catholic Church, said.
Everyone participated during the ceremony, so that the priest could capture their attention and keep them engaged. Specifically, children with Autism have a difficult time focusing on topics that aren’t interesting to them or are not engaging enough. But during the special needs mass, they went up to the altar and read small parts of The Letter of Paul.
“We design the ministry to meet the needs of the people,” Rev. Dr. Daris Dixon-Clark, reverend of First Baptist Church in Bay Shore, said. His church currently does not hold special needs services, but he expressed that churches in communities exist to cater to the needs of their parishioners. “If you have those needs in the community, then absolutely, there needs to be some type of component in the ministry that could reach out to [people with special needs].”
In the past, families have requested support from religious establishments for different types of religious masses and ceremonies, Nicole Ness, a behavior analyst with over a decade of experience working with people with developmental disabilities, said. “When the church is providing services, parents feel more welcomed and more at ease.”