By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published April 4, 2019
ATHENS—Lynn Langston has spent more than 30 years in religious education—but this Mass moved her more than almost any other.
In early March, nine of Langston’s students, ranging in age from 8 to 28, received the sacraments of Eucharist and confirmation. For the director of religious education from St. Joseph Church in Athens, the Mass was a special event. The students were part of Langston’s—and St. Joseph’s—first class for those with disabilities.
Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, celebrated the March 3 Mass, which also brought together many active participants and volunteers from the archdiocesan Disabilities Ministry for their biannual Faith and Sharing Mass. He began his homily telling those gathered how happy he was to be there.
“I have celebrated these sacraments many times, but today it is a particular joy, as I know it is for all gathered here,” he said.
The bishop spoke especially to the parents and teachers of the students.
“You have showered these young people in two kinds of protection—seeing to their physical and emotional needs, and also attending to their need to be nourished in the sacraments, to be strengthened on the body of the Lord and to be aided and supported by his Holy Spirit. I know there are other concerns that you bear—there are complex medical issues that you attend to, matters of learning and questions of ultimate care for your children,” Bishop Konzen said. “You strive to see always that your whole family is united in a common understanding of what God asks of you and how God blesses those who love what he has created. You offer your own lives for the sake of your children, bringing them ever closer to the God who made them and who desires their well-being and salvation.”
He thanked their caretakers and teachers for helping them grow in their relationship with God.
“Thank you to all who have worked to prepare these recipients of the holy sacraments we celebrate. Just as these good people have already enriched your lives, we pray that their desire for union with God through holy Communion and confirmation will enrich the church and bless all of us with the grace that comes from not only speaking the language of love but living it,” Bishop Konzen said.
Langston, who called the Mass “absolutely beautiful,” said they began the program for young parishioners with disabilities after St. Joseph pastor Father Paul Moreau noticed a need.
“We didn’t know how many people would come, but as the word got out, my cell phone just kept ringing,” she said.
The majority of the students were Hispanic, and Langston remembers one mother who called her in tears.
“She called me and told me, in very broken English, that her child had been denied first Communion and confirmation because of her disabilities,” she said. “She was just crying and asking me if I could accept her.”
Much of the structure of Langston’s special needs class relied on volunteers from the parish and active parents. Leaders would give the parents lessons for them to teach to their children.
“These families have such beautiful hearts,” she said. “They were such a blessing to all of us.”
When Langston witnessed her students receive the sacraments, she watched with her eyes full of joyful tears.
“I really believe this was the culmination of my 30 years of ministry. To help these children who’d been denied these graces of God was so special,” she said. “People think that we blessed these children, but the complete opposite is true—they blessed us.”
Maggie Rousseau, director for the archdiocesan Disabilities Ministry, said programs like the one at St. Joseph’s are tremendously needed in the archdiocese.
“The Faith and Sharing Mass is one way we can reach out to a community and celebrate together, as well as support the growth of new programs. The program at St. Joseph’s is a wonderful example of welcoming. Father Moreau recognized a need and made this program a priority for his religious education staff. And the Holy Spirit provided truly wonderful catechists, a few with a background in special education and a few with hearts open to possibilities,” she said, adding how much she appreciated Bishop Konzen’s presence.
“This Mass was Bishop Konzen’s first celebration with families living with disabilities,” said Rousseau. “He seemed very much at ease with the children. He spoke to the hearts of the parents thanking them and encouraging them to continue their children’s faith formation.”
For information on how parishes can support children with disabilities, contact Maggie Rousseau at email@example.com.