Incarnating the Gospel: Liturgical Adaptation for People with Disabilities

by Lorenzo Penalosa, OSB

According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, one of the aims of the Second Vatican Council was “to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions that are subject to change” (SC 1).

Today, over 56 years later, the Church has been more open to and aware of differences — diversity in language, music, art, architecture and cultural expressions. In fact, today, liturgical adaptation has become synonymous with inculturation. John Paul II defined it as the process by which “the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community” (Catechesi Tradendae 53, Slavorum Apostoli 21, Redemptoris Missio 52).

As a Filipino native, now a Benedictine monk of an American monastery studying in Rome, I’ve come to appreciate cultural diversity as a beautiful glimpse of the catholicity of the Church. As a student in liturgy, I am also aware of the great discernment involved and the monumental task that still needs to be done in order to authentically “incarnate the Gospel” throughout the world.

There are, however, other forms of liturgical adaptation. I was born with spina bifida and club foot, and my doctors didn’t think I would be able to walk. And yet by God’s grace I am able to walk, slowly and often with the use of a cane. Because of balance problems, though, I have difficulty with stairs and steps. What does it mean for me, a deacon, to serve at the liturgy with my physical limitations?

My community, Saint Meinrad Archabbey, and my current residence, Collegio Sant’Anselmo in Rome, have been extremely understanding of my limitations. For example, when I serve as deacon on Sundays, I am not able to carry the Book of the Gospels since I walk with a cane, and yet this does not prevent me from proclaiming the Good News and occasionally preaching. I am grateful for their accommodation and generous support in my vocation.

Liturgical adaptations for people with disabilities, though, are not limited to the celebrant and ministers. It should enable the whole assembly to worship and participate as fully as possible. In 2017, the U.S. bishops affirmed, “The creation of a fully accessible parish reaches beyond mere physical accommodation to encompass the attitudes of all parishioners toward persons with disabilities. All members of the faith community have a role to play…” (Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities, Revised Edition, 7).

Yes, we advance the work of “incarnating the Gospel in different cultures” but we must not forget that “incarnation” involves physicality — carne, flesh, the body. Due to the fallen condition of humanity, many of us have impaired bodies, bodies that are nevertheless ours, bodies that have nevertheless been created and redeemed by God. We are made up of both body and soul. In our Catholic perspective, we worship God with our whole selves, together with the whole Body of Christ, the Church.

As Jesus said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Mt 9:12, Mk 2:17, Lk 5:31). This statement can also apply to those who suffer physically in any way. Their presence in churches can serve as a powerful testament of faith in Christ’s healing comfort. As St. Paul states, “[God’s] power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

In your parishes or religious communities, are there accommodations offered for people with visual, hearing, developmental or walking disabilities? Are there adaptations done to allow handicap or elderly priests to celebrate? In what ways can we “incarnate the Gospel” and help people with handicaps to participate fully, bodily, in our worship?

Br. Lorenzo Penalosa OSB is a monk of St. Meinrad Archabbey, where he made solemn vows in 2018. He was ordained a deacon last May. A graduate of Marian University and St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, he is now studying at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.

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