By Diocese of Joliet Communications
When Monica and Jesús Rosas of Naperville brought their family to the diocesan Mass celebrating persons with special needs, the day held extra meaning for them.
September 18 is also International Pitt Hopkins Awareness Day, created to bring attention to the neurodevelopmental disorder contracted by their 6-year-old son, Emilio, at the age of 15 months.
“To have this Mass on the same day promoting Hopkins creates a special connection with our faith and the syndrome,” Monica Rosas said.
That feeling of connection was evident among the Mass attendees, as they or their children live with special needs including Down syndrome, deafness, amputation, and other challenges. They welcomed the opportunity to gather for a liturgy celebrated by Bishop Ron Hicks that was dedicated solely to them.
Juanita and Sergio Martinez traveled from West Chicago with their daughter, Vivianna, to the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet for the Mass. Vivianna, 39, has Down syndrome and is also living with kidney disease.
“We’re not used to having the spotlight on us,” Juanita Martinez said. “It’s due, and it’s time that everyone is together. We’re part of society, too.”
That desire for inclusion is what drew Jeanne McDonald to the REACH program at St. Raphael Catholic Church in Naperville more than 20 years ago. She wanted to use her background in deaf and hard of hearing education for the parish’s catechetical program for youth with special needs. She now serves as director of the Religious Education Apostolate for Christian Handicapped (REACH) at the church, which serves 11 additional parishes. She was happy to see several of her current and former students at the special Mass.
“They have the same hopes and dreams that we all share,” McDonald said. “Acknowledge them, recognize them.”
In his homily, Bishop Hicks focused on the recognition that we are all equal in the eyes of God by recalling an incident from his grade-school years at the now-closed St. Jude the Apostle School in South Holland, Illinois. When he entered the classroom one day, he saw the names of all 50 students written on the chalkboard. The teacher then told the students that if they behaved perfectly that day, they would join the rest of the school in watching a movie the next day in the school gym. But if students acted out, she would draw an ‘x” through their names, and they would not qualify for movie day.
As a well-behaved student, the young Bishop Hicks thought to himself, “I’ve got this. I’m going to be going to movie day.”
But as the day wore on, the teacher grew stricter in what qualified as poor behavior. When the young Bishop Hicks failed to put his pencil box in his desk between periods – a minor infraction – she crossed out his name. By the end of the day, all the names on the chalkboard had an “x” drawn through them.
She then told the class the reason behind the day-long exercise, Bishop Hicks recounted.
“She said, ‘I wanted to teach you that none of you are perfect. And even though none of you are perfect, you still get movie day tomorrow. And why is that? Because God loves you. I love you. Your parents love you. Your families love you. You’re loved.’”
Her words also carried another message, according to Bishop Hicks.
“Yet she also wanted to say, ‘But you all have faults. Don’t ever think that you’re perfect and can judge everyone else,’” Bishop Hicks said.
That message of unconditional love resonated with Stephen, who saw an ad for the Mass in the bulletin of St. Michael Catholic Church in Wheaton. He had his right leg amputated above the knee about nine years ago because of cancer.
“Some people just want you to get out of their way,” said Stephen, who did not want to give his last name. “The fact that the bishop recognizes us with this Mass means a lot to me.”
Ed Wojciechowski, 75, of Darien also had a leg amputated above the knee. Although he uses a prosthetic left leg, he still needs a walker. He said the Mass had a simple underlying message for all.
“Be thankful for your own health,” Wojciechowski said.
The Mass was sponsored by the Office of Pastoral Outreach within the Department of Catechesis and Evangelization.