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Religious Life

Communities must welcome the disabled


The 1990s have been a decade of unparalleled liberation for persons with disabilities, a group of people so marginalized they were rarely even perceived as such. Despite the continual example of holistic healing set by Jesus in the gospels, persons with disabilities have historically been viewed only as bodies needing care, not as unique individuals whose gifts and potentials were in dire need of liberation.

Since President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the situation of disabled people in U.S. society has changed dramatically. The act extends greater participation in mainstream American life, with provisions ensuring the civil rights of disabled persons in the areas of employment, public accommodations, communications and transportation. The ensuing installation of curb cuts and ramps, as well as reasonable accommodations in the workplace, has done much to ensure the inclusion of disabled persons in society.

Predating the act by 12 years, the U.S. bishops’ pastoral on persons with disabilities served both as inspiration and model for the disabilities act. The bishops clearly called all Catholics to imitate the Jesus who was so keenly aware of the plight of the many individuals with disabilities who crossed his path in Judea and Samaria. The pastoral challenged the church to include persons with disabilities in all phases of its life:

“Realizing the unique gifts disabled individuals have to offer the church, we wish to address the need for their integration into the Christian community and their fuller participation in its life.” The pastoral called for the establishment of disability ministry on the national, diocesan and parish levels.

Due to these efforts, persons with disabilities have been experiencing more and more open doors in both the church and society. However, religious communities are an area of church life that has been somewhat ambivalent about welcoming disabled persons. An article by Carol Garibaldi Rogers in the Sept. 26, 1998, issue of America gives the impression that persons with disabilities are not accepted in active apostolic communities because they cannot engage in ministry that earns a stipend. “It’s not a mercenary issue, it’s a ministry issue,” one sister is quoted as saying, “… if a woman was not able to minister, she would be steered elsewhere.”

In fact, the admittance of qualified individuals with disabilities into religious communities is a complex question requiring much discussion and discernment on the part of both the aspirant and the community. The ability of the disabled person to engage in stipended ministry is certainly a legitimate concern. It is to be hoped, however, that this will not be the sole basis a community uses for admitting otherwise qualified candidates. By refusing to accept persons with disabilities, religious communities are depriving the church of effective ministers who not only reflect the passion of Jesus but people whose disability itself provides a precise point of connection with marginalized persons.

Many religious with disabilities and chronic illnesses are already working in a variety of ministries. They serve as spiritual directors, counselors, teachers, administrators. Some entered with their disability; others incurred it later. Some utilize government services such as Vocational Rehabilitation, which provides equipment such as scooters, hand controls and computers so that persons with disabilities can actualize their potential to become employed.

Every state has an Office of Vocational Rehabilitation; religious generally are eligible for these services. Also, with the rapid increases in computer technology, many more ministries are opening to religious with disabilities. The following brief sketches are just a few examples of religious with disabilities who not only serve the church but have also provided income for their communities.

Mercy Sr. Mary Maher of Plainfield, N.J., experienced a stroke in 1966 at the age of 45. After a time of rehabilitation, her doctor recommended she return to teaching piano. Maher, now more attuned to the effects of suffering, started parish social ministry in the 1980s in order to provide for the needs of poor persons in Sacred Heart Parish in South Plainfield. Although Sr. Mary was no longer able to drive, parishioners in the social ministry program provided transportation to homebound parishioners. Realizing the need for socialization to alleviate the isolation so many unwell parishioners experienced, Maher started “Care and Share,” a monthly gathering for homebound persons that continues to the present.

Then there’s Fr. Bill Atkinson. On a cold winter day in 1965, the then 19-year-old Augustinian novice became a quadriplegic when he broke his neck in a tobogganing accident. After extensive rehabilitation, he chose to continue as an Augustinian seminarian. He was ordained in 1974. “I’m sure there were people in my community with reservations, but more were thankful I could do it,” said Atkinson.

Atkinson returned to his former high school, Monsignor Bonner in Drexel Hill, Pa., as an instructor in theology, the ministry he continues to perform today. “Being a ‘quad’ has given me a different perspective on life,” he said. “I appreciate more what’s really long-lasting -- my relationship with God and other people.”

Disability has a way of calling forth ingenuity and trying new wine in new wineskins. The Immaculate Heart Sisters of West Chester, Pa., realizing that a nursing home environment is not the most appropriate for every sister and that their sisters with disabilities still have gifts to offer in service to the church, have started an assisted living residence.

Sr. Regina Helene said, “We asked ourselves, ‘Would it be valuable to have sisters with varying levels of disability live together to help one another and to minister as they are able?’” Five IHM sisters now reside in St. Theresa Parish in Hellertown, Pa. Three of them have disabilities: Sr. Suzanne McRae, who teaches advanced math, Sr. Judith Parvese, who conducts the parish music ministry, and Sr. Miriam Irene Keenan, who works with adult and children’s religious education.

“It’s working out well,” Keenan, whose left side remains paralyzed by a stroke, said of her living situation, “I’m energized by living here.” The sisters are able to participate in community life while still making valuable contributions to the people they serve.

Another innovative program that is integrating disability into religious life focuses on deafness and is administered by Fr. Tom Coughlin in the New York archdiocese. “I was a Dominican for a while,” said Coughlin, “But I couldn’t develop meaningful relationships with other hearing members who were disinclined to learn sign language.”

Coughlin, still desiring to live a vowed life in religious community, was asked by Cardinal John O’Connor to develop a seminary program for deaf men. Presently, four deaf seminarians reside with Coughlin in a separate house of formation near St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.

“If we live by ourselves in our own cultural and linguistic milieu, our chance of success in the priesthood will be much better,” said Coughlin. He has had requests to train deaf seminarians from other countries and also conducts vocation retreats for deaf men and women.

Finally, I share my own story. Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 25, I felt called to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pa., and entered in 1983. Since then, I have worked for two dioceses in disability ministry, conducted disability retreats, written about the spirituality of disability and coordinated a computer instruction program for my community’s retired sisters.

As my own level of disability increased, I have utilized programs like attendant care and paratransit; the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation has provided me with the computer and voice-activation capability with which this article was written. Living with a disability has taught me a great deal -- that what is truly important in life is not what we do but rather who we are. It has given me a sense of true interdependence and taught me that no matter our life circumstance, it is our relationship with God that is the bedrock of life.

Today, as we stand on the threshold of a new millennium, those religious communities willing to accept qualified candidates with disabilities will send a strong message that the vowed lifestyle is truly inclusive. Powerful witness such as this will also proclaim the countercultural message that financial concerns alone do not dictate church ministry.

And, as the stories of Sr. Mary Maher, Fr. Bill Atkinson, and countless other religious with disabilities demonstrate, religious communities will also be getting effective ministers into the bargain. n

Sr. Janice McGrane is the disability awareness coordinator for the Philadelphia archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000