Beauty and truth in the Eucharist: Utah’s Catholic community has a patchy history of disability inclusion

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Friday, October 28, 2022

Archives of the Diocese of Salt Lake City

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Those gathered for baptism at St. Rose of Lim parish, Layton, in the early 1960s included at least one disabled person.

By special at the Intermountain Catholic

Michael Courtney

Archivist, Diocese of Salt Lake City

“Ultimate perfection has to do with everything and everyone being united in the life of God. Perfection is not found in a single model but in the assembly. There is something ingenious in the way people come together for the Eucharist. It is the place where the sacred is found. The more different pieces you have together in the assembly, the more sacred it is. In this way, no beauty or truth is excluded.– Donald Senior, CP american catholicMarch 1994, p.16

Donald Senior, PC, President Emeritus, Chancellor and Professor of the New Testament at the Catholic Theological Union, spoke the words during an interview on the topic of people with disabilities. Senior’s statement succinctly summarizes the Catholic Church’s view of people with disabilities and the Eucharist, in that the Catholic Church has long recognized “the more different pieces you have together in the assembly, the more sacred it is”.

The Church has always tried to be inclusive. For example, the Catholic Church supported Deaf Catholics organizing the International Catholic Association of the Deaf in 1949. At the same time, Senior’s quote also suggests that without “different rooms,” the less sacred an assembly is.

The Church has also been exclusive. The prejudices of able-bodied Catholics prevented Catholics with disabilities from fully participating in Mass. In a recent article on the synodal listening session for people with disabilities held at the Vatican, the Arlington Catholic Herald reported that many Catholics still believe that people with disabilities do not and cannot understand the teachings of the Church and, therefore, should be excluded from communion.

Traces of the above tensions exist in Utah’s Catholic history. Early in this story, Catholics with disabilities publicly shared the Eucharist. On November 25, 1899, the Intermountain Catholic announced that “on November 17, Miss Thresa Rasche and Mr. Paul Mark were married by Father Kiely”, at the Madeleine Cathedral, noting that Rasche and Mark were deaf and that Mass was celebrated in the language of the signs.

The fact that Mark and Rasche had their nuptial mass celebrated in sign language meant that the couple had learned the catechism in sign language, thus enabling them to receive the sacraments. It also meant that there was a deaf Catholic community in Utah that participated in the sacramental life of the Church, because either someone learned to interpret the Mass in sign language, or the father. Kiely learned sign language to serve the deaf.

In the 1960s, the Catholic deaf community in Utah continued to grow by organizing a local chapter of the International Catholic Association of the Deaf. This chapter initiated a monthly mass for the deaf community and organized Christian Doctrine Fellowship programs for deaf students at St. Joseph Parish in Ogden.

For the blind, Catholic publishing houses printed books in very large print or books in Braille. When blindness took the sight of Bishop Duane G. Hunt, fifth Bishop of Salt Lake, he purchased missals in very large print in order to continue celebrating Mass – without them, Bishop Hunt would have had to memorize Mass.

During the 1970s, some parishes established CCD classes for children with special needs. In 1975, at St. Marguerite Parish in Tooele, Sr. Loretta Marie Marbach, SHF started a special education program at the parish level. Sr. Loretta Marie told the Intermountain Catholic that the main purpose of the program was “to help these young people grow in a loving relationship with the Lord and to prepare them for First Communion and Confirmation”.

Through the efforts of people who are deaf, blind, and living with other disabilities, the Catholic Church in Utah made many strides during the 20th century to make the Eucharist accessible to them. However, at the end of the century, many obstacles still existed for disabled Catholics to fully participate in the Eucharistic banquet. One reason for this is that, as Bibian J. Rendon, then coordinator of the Diocesan Office for the Disabled, explained in a 1992 interview, many Catholics do not want others to know about their disability: many years our society has looked down on people with disabilities.

He went on to say that a hearing-impaired person “would rather endure the tortures of not hearing or misinterpreting” than letting someone in the Church know that they have trouble hearing Mass.

Other barriers to full participation in Mass include the lack of accessible entrances for those with limited mobility, the scarcity of transportation for those who cannot walk or drive, and the absence of trained liturgical ministers with disabilities in the parishes.

The invisibility of disabilities within the Catholic community remains one of the greatest issues for the Catholic Church in Utah. The more the Church obscures the members, the less the assembly is sacred. By living their lives publicly, Catholics with disabilities make Church gatherings more sacred: Paul Mark and Thresa Rasche visibly marked their marriage using sign language. Bishop Hunt continued his ministry despite the loss of sight. Students with learning disabilities studied their catechism. In the end – “no beauty or truth is excluded.”

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