Mass for individuals with disabilities fills cathedral with love

GARY – Among local faithful, families and friends of individuals with special needs gathered at the Cathedral of the Holy Angels on March 10, there was a palpable sense of care, closeness and, according to Bishop Robert J. McClory, a personification of the kind of love that Jesus exemplified.
At the diocesan seat, where those participating in the Office of Missionary Discipleship and Evangelization hosted Mass gathered, presider Bishop McClory observed plenty of smiles, hugs and affirming words among worshippers. Delivering a homily reflecting on the self-sacrificial love of Christ, he lauded how those present showed compassion for others.
“It’s a public witness as we love and care for those around us; so, we see love in action,” said Bishop McClory. “And the fact is that the word of love and encouragement for those who might be made fun of, who might be told ‘you’re less than,’ is deflected in an instant because of the cross of Christ.”
He concluded, “He suffered; I suffer. He loved; I love. He loves me in my weakness.”
Speaking before a core group of parishioners and guests from throughout the diocese who filled the cathedral to near capacity, he said the crowd brimming with love truly “makes this a home” for all Catholics.
The special guests at the cathedral were mostly youth and young adults, whose disabilities ranged from mobility issues to the full autism spectrum. Each person brought to the Mass certain abilities evident in their reverent and sometimes excitable demeanors. Several of these faithful served at the altar, some later performed skits at a reception, and many responded vocally at the appropriate times in the liturgy.

Guests at the liturgy included members of the Martinez family of Hammond, whose daughter and son have disabilities, kept a close eye on the sights at the cathedral. They watched intently as Natalie Garcia, Alyssa Maldonado and Jessica Tellez, each of whom have special needs, carried the gifts up to the altar during the offertory procession. The young women beamed with joy and were cheerfully greeted by Bishop McClory, who passed the cruets and plate to his altar servers, including Katie Perosky and Chris Neff, who have been offering their special service for years.
Perosky said she enjoys serving at Mass along with her older brother, George Perosky. The siblings have worked with three Gary bishops and, though their demeanor is generally reserved, they smile when talking about their service in sacred places.
“It’s really nice. The cathedral is bigger than my other churches,” said Katie Perosky.
When asked about how he keeps focused on offering flawless assistance at Mass, George Perosky answers in short phrases, always saying the reason is “Jesus.”
The siblings’ parents, Ed and Carol Perosky of Merrillville, are supportive, taking the young adults to parishes most welcoming of their service. Carol Perosky was particularly moved during Bishop McClory’s homily, wiping away tears while photographing her children.
“When the bishop was talking about the special needs people – how they are ridiculed at times and people don’t understand them – and the caretakers, I (was thinking) you just pour your heart out,” said Carol Perosky. “Just hearing him talk about the different physical, mental and other (characteristics), it is trying sometimes to care for these children, but you wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
“The love in that cathedral today was something you could feel,” she added.
Volunteer Jason Smola of Munster is a strong advocate of creating and promoting opportunities for persons with disabilities to serve in the Mass. As part of the Ability Inclusion Ministry (AIM) initiative , Smola is working with others to expand altar serving, lecturing, ushering and “other ways individuals with disabilities are called to serve.” At the conclusion of Mass, he announced that for the first time, the ministry will host multiple liturgies, one set for St. Thomas More in Munster on Sunday, June 23, and another at St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center in Valparaiso on Sunday, Oct. 20.
Smola said he was compelled to take on the task of advocating for people with disabilities, “because of the reality of the world and the stigma that has been around for thousands of years.”
“Our core goal at the starting point was not AIM, but to open up special education for the Catholic schools in the diocese. But we talked about how that is an insanely huge undertaking … so the thought was, what if we gained traction and became more visible in other parts of the Church,” Smola explained.
Emily Hackett, who has been leading the charge for this initiative, was grateful for the large turnout at the Mass. She said such a gathering is a building block to making inclusion more of a reality in the diocese.
“We would love to have more of our folks with disabilities participate and be represented at the Masses,” said Hackett, also director of religious education at St. Thomas More.
Such inclusivity is music to the ears of Bob and Theresa Birlson. The St. John the Evangelist parishioners have spent many years helping facilitate their son Andrew’s interest in assisting at liturgies. The 24-year-old is physically strong and has an amiable personality. As such, his parents said he has been regarded as a go-to guy when it comes to serving at the altar.
Andrew Birlson was singled out when the bishop asked him to hold the processional cross for a few moments during the homily as the bishop made a comparison between the crucifix and another symbol.
For years, the bright young adult, who has learning disabilities due to a brain injury suffered as a child as a result of a metabolic disorder, has found ways to be included in liturgies and other group activities. His parents praised the ongoing efforts of the diocese to include families who may otherwise feel there are not many resources for higher-functioning special needs people seeking to live out their lives as Christians.
“Andrew loves the Catholic Church, he loves his faith, and he loves coming here,” said Bob Birlson.
Theresa Birlson added, “This helps families network with each other; I’ve been blessed to have friends who have children who are in Andrew’s similar situation. I found out about this Mass from a friend.”
According to the Birlsons, their son has often talked about a possible religious vocation. Some ideas have been proposed, such as becoming a religious brother. They hope his goals may someday intersect with the right religious organization. Until then, he plans on making his reliable, reverent presence visible at sanctuaries throughout the diocese.
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Caption: Bishop Robert J. McClory greets Natalie Garcia during the Offertory during the Mass on March 10 at the Cathedral of the Holy Angels in Gary. Of the care shown to those with special needs, Bishop McClory said in his homily that it “is among the purest manifestations of the love that Jesus wants us to have.” (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)