Through a Mirror, Darkly

Attempting to reconcile the abiding quality of love with development of the human perception of that love, Paul writes to the church in Corinth that “for now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

I have been pondering questions of sight and seeing lately because, like many people in my age group, I am undergoing cataract surgery to remove cloudy lenses in my eyes and replace them with lens implants.  As I write, my left eye is recovering from surgery.  Its vision is somewhat improved but still blurry.  This eye experiences much more brightness and light than the right eye.  I removed the left lens from my eyeglasses.  (Look closely at the image accompanying this post.)  The right eye, though its view of the world is dimmer, perceives my surroundings with much greater clarity and no blurriness since it is still benefiting from the remaining lens in my glasses.

I wonder about the ways in which Christian discipleship is a bit like my currently differentiated vision.  Do sacramental symbols open us up to a world that is brighter yet a little blurry precisely because they operate in the mode of symbol?  Does daily life all too often swamp us with dimness that is also characterized by the clarity of our faults and the faults of others?

At the same time, I wonder about darkness that insinuates itself into Christian liturgy.  At Mass, do we extend a sign of peace to some of those standing nearby but not to others also standing nearby?  Does a show of fashion and consumer style obscure the humble yet daring promise to live life wed in the Lord?  Whose voices are excluded from music ministry or preparation for worship?  What place is there in our worship for those whose vision and / or hearing is impaired?

Likewise, I wonder about the light that shines through in daily life, at times more luminously than in our liturgies.  Liturgy is to shed light on all dimension of Christian life, but liturgy is also a matter of celebrating and raising up the light that is already before us in the world.  Recognizing the God at work in our liturgies requires recognition of God at work outside of our liturgies, and vice versa.

No one should be excluded from the grace of these sacraments

Yesterday Pope Francis released a Message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In this message he stresses the need for everybody’s inclusion in the Church and the importance of active participation.

In the midst of the different debates and concerns we have for church services over Christmas and a host of other COVID-19 related challenges, we should also take time for an Advent examination of conscience, remembering the words of Christ, “Amen I say to you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40 RNJB). 

This is the section of the letter that deals with liturgical concerns:

The “rock” of active participation

To help our society to “build back better”, inclusion of the vulnerable must also entail efforts to promote their active participation.

Before all else, I strongly reaffirm the right of persons with disabilities to receive the sacraments, like all other members of the Church. All liturgical celebrations in the parish should be accessible to them, so that, together with their brothers and sisters, each of them can deepen, celebrate, and live their faith. Special attention should be paid to people with disabilities who have not yet received the sacraments of Christian initiation: they should be welcomed and included in programmes of catechesis in preparation for these sacraments. No one should be excluded from the grace of these sacraments.

“In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples. All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization” (Evangelii Gaudium, 120). People with disabilities, both in society and in the Church, also wish to become active subjects of our pastoral ministry, and not simply its recipients. “Many persons with disabilities feel that they exist without belonging and without participating. Much still prevents them from being fully enfranchised. Our concern should be not only to care for them, but also to ensure their ‘active participation’ in the civil and ecclesial community. That is a demanding and even tiring process, yet one that will gradually contribute to the formation of consciences capable of acknowledging each individual as a unique and unrepeatable person” (Fratelli Tutti, 98). Indeed, the active participation of people with disabilities in the work of catechesis can greatly enrich the life of the whole parish. Precisely because they have been grafted onto Christ in baptism, they share with him, in their own particular way, the priestly, prophetic, and royal mission of evangelizing through, with and in the Church.

Autism and Liturgical Participation

April is Autism Awareness month. Eugenic ideologies have reared their ugly head again amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, making plain many societies’ utilitarian ethics. I cannot think of a better time to be mindful of those among us who have to fear for their lives simply because they are different. Here, I interview Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC, an autistic priest, about autism, prayer and the liturgy in the hopes that we may take a small step toward becoming more inclusive of those that societies so readily discard when our churches reopen.

Let’s begin with some basic terms we’ll be using in this interview: neurotypical, neurodiverse, autistic vs. person with autism. How would you explain these terms?

Autism is a variation in brain structure. It is not characterized by a single trait but a combination that varies a bit between different autistics. Some of these characteristics are: sensory irregularities (hyper- or hypo-sensitivity), difficulty reading social signs and thus a difficulty understanding what others are thinking or feeling, literal thinking and use of language, and difficulties in executive function. Many of these primary characteristics are not directly observable by an outside observer, so non-autistics will often notice secondary characteristics. Some examples: sensory irregularity may come out as stimming or fidgeting to moderate sense input exteriorly or in meltdowns from sensory overload, difficulties in executive function may be displayed as rigidity in schedule, etc.

Neurodiverse and neurotypical are correlative terms. Neurodiverse usually refers to someone with autism or related conditions like ADHD or OCD, while neurotypical refers to those who do not have any of these conditions.

You shared on your blog that you were diagnosed as an adult, after serving a year as a parish priest. As the saying in autistic circle goes, “when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” Looking back, how do you think autism made you experience the Mass — as a celebrant and member of the assembly — differently from your neurotypical peers?

Personally, I think I have tended to grasp the faith more on the intellectual side than the emotional side. For me, one of the most important books of my teen years was Kreeft and Tacelli’s Handbook to Christian Apologetics, which goes through the rational arguments for many aspects of the faith. I think that has extended to a certain extent to the liturgy. I may not pick up on the emotions of the homilist but I definitely pick up on the intellectual content. I definitely appreciate the consistency of the liturgy. I went to an evangelical service as a teen and found the whole indeterminate structure difficult to follow. Beyond that, I would suspect I experience the liturgy itself pretty close to normal. The social time often right before or after can be a little more of a challenge.

Many autistic individuals have sensory issues with Mass. Although, I do have some autistic sensory issues, most Masses don’t cause an issue in this regard for me. I am still amazed by priests who can do back-to-back big parishes Masses on Sunday. I can say something the 9 and 11:30 Masses, but I need some alone time to recharge between them.

Liturgies are often celebrated in ways that aim to stimulate the senses. What are some immediate ways that churches can better accommodate those with sensory processing differences, which is one of the more commonly shared effects of autism, be it hypo or hypersensitive senses?

For those on the hyposensitive end, I don’t think much needs to be done besides accommodating if they are swaying back and forth at the back or need a weighted blanket over them during Mass. Hyposensitivity can usually be resolved by the person adding more sensory input and most can learn ways to do so that are minimally disruptive like what I mentioned.

Hypersensitivity is a little more complicated as you need to lower the lights, turn down the microphones, avoid incense, avoid florescent lights (since these appear like strobe lights to many on the spectrum), etc. A number of places around the country have done a sensory friendly Mass of this style. Another aspect often in such Masses is that they use the same songs each week to help with autistics’ executive function difficulties and preference for sameness.

A sensory friendly Mass should ideally be weekly at the same place and time. As we are a small minority of the population (current estimates say 1 in 54), it may require several nearby parishes coordinating to have one Mass. A variation on the sensory-friendly Mass that has also happened in other places and I think what most parishes should be able to do at one Mass a week is the “reverse cry-room” where you turn down the lights and sound system in there and make it a place for those with sensory issues, especially hypersensitivity.

Sensory-friendly Masses would not be exclusive to autistics. Obviously, families of autistic individuals would be invited as it is good to go to Mass together. However, I think it is best to leave it open to everyone: some elderly people start having sensory issues related to other conditions or some neurotypicals may just prefer that style.

Let’s talk about the self-stimulatory behavior of “stimming”—repetitive body movements or movements of objects that provide calming effects for autistic people. How do you suggest churches create space for stimming safely during the liturgy?

I think some stimming just requires those around not to worry about it. I have often been in a lecture or other social event and pulled out a small item to stim with. (As a celebrant or concelebrant at Mass, I notice I sway at times but this is not usually too obvious.) I carry items I know that don’t make much sound or light but provide my hands with a nice tactile sensation. If a person does this in Mass, all that needs to happen is that those around need to know this helps them focus and not to be judgmental.

If someone needs more significant stimming like some kind of jumping or a vocal stim, then we should help with further means. Something like swaying can be done at the back or in a “reverse cry-room” as explained above. Others might require that individual to step out of the Mass for a minute or two to get out a verbal stim before coming back. We can be less judgmental on those aspects: most people don’t judge when parents step out for three minutes to calm their child or take them to the bathroom. I hope the community can similarly accept if an autistic young woman needs to step out for a few minutes to maintain composure.

You’ve tweeted about the idea of creating a prayer book for autistics. Could you say more about what would make the prayers unlike other prayer books that already exist?

Well, this is currently a book I’m working on. I don’t want to give away too much: maybe year or so when it comes out, you can interview me about it. I can give three ideas though. First, a big difficulty for autistics is what psychologists call theory of mind. This means that through their words, facial expressions, etc. people intuit what other people know, think or feel. Most people do this subconsciously but we autistics often lack such automatic filters, but can sometimes do a poor but passable job through conscious effort. The initial stages of prayer, thus are difficult as a certain amount of prayer is based on us grasping what God knows, thinks or feels, which can be a challenge for us. However, once we overcome that difficulty in developing a prayer life, we get to the second point. We know that God can read our mind directly, not just hear our words and see our face like other humans, and he can implant a thought in our mind, not just speak to us in words or work through the senses. I think that our autistic tendency to think in ideas but not directly in words can help prayer progress faster at this time. Prayer is one form of bidirectional communication not requiring sensory processing. Finally, I think we will tend more towards intellectual prayer over emotional prayer.

“Nothing for us, without us” is an on-going cry of the disability rights movement. It strikes me that it is important to hear this cry when planning and celebrating liturgies as well. Parents of autistic children tend to be involved in churches with religious education programs for children with special needs. However, I wonder if there are as many autistic adults involved in ministry, or if they tend to feel shunned. How can churches urge more participation by autistic people in liturgical ministry?

Finding autistic individuals in a local community who would be interested in Catholic activities, whether Mass, catechesis or small groups might be difficult as you are correct that many feel excluded and thus don’t actively participate. Let me offer a few ideas. Deacon Larry Sutton wrote a book on catechesis for autistic children and I think his idea of starting small is good: even if at first you only have five people, the word might get out and in a few years others who are on the sidelines start participating. Another point would be to make a simple announcement at Mass asking for autistic adults and parents of autistic children to email a certain person to organize something to serve this community. Most parishes have a few who are autistic but blend in enough that it might not be obvious to everyone else. Another idea would be to approach local autistic groups and see if they could send out a note offering something to autistic Catholics.

Thanks for your time, Fr. Schneider!

Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC is an autistic priest with the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi and a doctoral candidate in Moral Theology at Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum in Rome. He blogs on autism, bioethics, and other topics on his blog, Through Catholic Lenses. Follow him on twitter @FrMatthewLC and @AutisticPriest.

The Yale ISM Review: On Healing

As many of our regular readers know, for the past several years I have edited an online publication for the Yale Institute of Sacred Music: The Yale ISM Review. The current issue, which appeared in December, is on the theme of healing.

What is healing about? How does it take place? What roles do prayer, liturgy, and the arts play in the process of healing? These are some of the questions raised and discussed in this issue. In a particularly thought-provoking final essay by Lydia Dugdale, we also look at healing at the time of death.

I’m delighted to let you know that among the many fine authors whose work appears in this issue are two of our regular Pray Tell contributors: Jill Crainshaw (“Can These Bones Live? Dancing with Skeletons in Unlikely Ballrooms”) and Lizette Larson Miller (“The Church’s Work of Healing: Prayer, Laying on of Hands, and Anointing”). And there is much more. Please take a look.

For my introduction to the contents of the issue, click here.

I hope you will enjoy this issue of the Review. It is my last as editor, as I have decided it is time for me to move on to other things. I’d like to say, for the record, that I am very proud to have had a role in founding and shaping this publication. This issue may be our best one yet! A new editor will be announced in the spring. Look forward to more good reads!

The ISM is an interdisciplinary graduate center at Yale University. It engages with the sacred through music, worship, and the arts in Christian communities, diverse religious traditions, and public life. The Yale ISM Review is an open-access publication. Subscription is free of charge.

Deaf Access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation: Past and Present

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. celebrates Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, Maryland on September 22, at the start of the International Week of the Deaf. (Photo by Andrew Biraj, from the Catholic Standard)

Reconciliation has historically been one of the most difficult Sacraments for Deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics to access and continues to be so. Prior to Vatican II, children who went to Catholic residential schools for the deaf were taught to write their confessions on a slip of paper and hand it to the priest when they entered the confessional. The priest would in turn respond in writing with their penance. This resulted in two problems. Firstly, it only worked with those who had adequate English literacy skills. Secondly, it seemed to have worked at schools when the chaplain knew what to expect, but the method did always achieve favorable results for adults who attempted the same at their neighborhood parish.

Recounting some of his awkward experiences from the 1930s-40s, one Deaf man wrote, “Several times, [after] I passed my written confession through the grate, the priest began to slap his head, slap the grate, and jump around in the confessional to my great confusion. He thought that my paper was a big bug trying to crawl into his ear… Another priest would take my confession paper, run out of the confessional, back again, out again and in again, not knowing what to do. Another would look out of the confessional. When he knew it would be my turn to enter, he would send me back to the last of the waiting penitents.”(1) Suffice to say, these incidents were enough to cause him to avoid the sacrament for many years. He only returned after he learned about a priest in his diocese who could sign.

Some Deaf adults continue to use write their confessions today if they do not have access to a priest who can sign. Those I have spoken with in my research have said that they would explain what to do beforehand so the priest knows what to expect. Those who have speech and can lipread would ask for a face-to-face so they could speak their confession. Lipreading the priest’s response can be a challenge, but one can always ask for clarification in writing if need be. Cochlear Implant or hearing aid users may or may not desire or require a face-to-face confession — preferences and needs vary and can change according to the acoustic environment as well.

The Church allows those who wish to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) to use an interpreter. The interpreter is bound to secrecy according to the seal of confession, as is the priest. However, I have met no one who has ever employed an interpreter. Every Deaf person I’ve asked acknowledged the accommodation as a positive step toward recognizing their needs but also admitted that they have never used one. “Why would I? I don’t want anyone else knowing my sins!” they said.

There is no question that the vast majority of Deaf Catholics who use ASL as their primary language of communication prefer going to a priest who can sign. For many, waiting until a priest who signs come into town is worth it. When a Deaf or hearing priest who signs comes into town, news of his presence spreads. Deaf Catholics would drive more than an hour in order to see them and the lines for Reconciliation are always long. When a Deaf priest is available, confessions can last several hours. As an interpreter once said to me while clutching her right fist tightly close to her chest (a variation of the sign for hanging on to something), “The Deaf just hold their confessions in until a Deaf priest comes along!”

Needless to say, the need for a signing priest in every diocese is ever present but often unmet. Is it unreasonable to request that every bishop assigns one priest to deaf ministry and to learn ASL? In 1924, this demand was not considered far-fetched. Several seminaries owned sign language dictionaries and religious orders such as the Jesuits and Sulpicians even had sign language classes for novices and seminarians. As Edward J. Cahill, a commentator writing in “The Catholic Charities Review” optimistically exhorted, “Let the sign language be added to the curriculum and be brought to every cleric who aspires to the priesthood. The sign language is not difficult to acquire, only needed steadfast practice and any seminarian interested could learn the language well in one year with the opportunities he would have among so many for practice. Given a general knowledge of sign language among the priests, there will be created a country-wide interest in the deaf, and once every priest is working, the Catholic deaf-mute problem will practically disappear!” (2)

Cahill’s vision is not simply a practical one but an eschatological one where the Kingdom of God includes all who sign in an intimate sacrament where humans encounter the living Christ. Dare we, the Church in America today, embrace this vision?

September is Deaf Awareness month and this week is the International Week of the Deaf. Many churches around the world that serve Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have events this week for those interested to learn more about deaf history, culture, and sign languages. Find out if you have a Deaf church in your neighborhood, make a visit and see what it’s like.

(1) Voice of the Deaf, unpublished manuscript, 5. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.
(2) A reprint of the original article can be found in The Catholic Deaf-Mute Vol. 24 no. 12 December 1923, 3. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.