Thursday, May 23, 2024

St. Joan of Arc’s Low-Sensory Masses Offer Inclusion with Simple, Quiet Settings

A boy prays his Rosary in the quiet of a chapel after speaking with The Witness about his experiences at the low-sensory Masses.
A boy prays his Rosary in the quiet of a chapel after speaking with The Witness about his experiences at the low-sensory Masses.

Many parishioners have a favorite weekend Mass. Reasons might include the music, the timing or the makeup of that particular celebration’s participants.

But for some members of the Diocese of Harrisburg, traditional Masses can be a bit too much – too much music, too many people, too many lights. As a way of making the Word welcoming to all, St. Joan of Arc Parish in Hershey hosts Masses for persons with sensory sensitivity on a quarterly basis. The Masses are open to everyone, from any parish. The next such Mass is Sunday, April 14 at 2 p.m.

Marianne Weltmer is the Director for Life & Dignity for the Diocese of Harrisburg. She said it is important to remember that although many parishioners enjoy the sensory experiences of a traditional Mass, it is not the case for everyone.

“Many of us benefit from a sensory-filled experience: worshiping in a church surrounded by music that uplifts the spirit, incense that purifies the altar and sanctuary, and flowers that may remind us of the beauty of creation,” she said.

But for those living with sensory sensitivities such as autism or other processing disorders, such a Mass environment may not be enjoyable or spiritually fulfilling, she noted.

“The things most of us find beautiful can be distracting and harmful to their Mass experience,” Weltmer said. “The ‘beautiful’ gain of the sensory-friendly Mass experience is how it provides the opportunity for everyone to participate in the Holy Mass and receive the Eucharist.”

That certainly is true for one 12-year-old church-goer, who attends the Masses at St. Joan of Arc as often as possible with his mom, Beth.

“I just find it so much more peaceful,” he said.

Although the pre-teen is an altar server and is able to attend the more traditional Masses, he said he really appreciates the quieter, shorter and more focused aspect of the low-sensory Masses. He said some songs in traditional Masses are just too long or distracting for him, in addition to other factors that make attendance more difficult. He said it’s nice to just have time to concentrate on readings, prayers and the priest’s words in these sensory-sensitivity Masses.

“You still have Father Al giving his wonderful homily,” he said, giving a shout out to Father Sceski, the pastor at St. Joan of Arc, where the Masses are held.

The aforementioned Father Al said he is happy his parish is able to provide an option for those who struggle with traditional Masses. He stressed that there are a variety of reasons why a low-sensory Mass might be appealing and that it brings its own kind of special gift.

“It’s a very, very simple Mass,” he said. “It’s a very quiet, reverent, simple Mass.”

A boy who enjoys the low-sensory Masses at St. Joan of Arc in Hershey wears noise-cancelling headphones as he prays.
A boy who enjoys the low-sensory Masses at St. Joan of Arc in Hershey wears noise-cancelling headphones as he prays.

Beth attends the sensory sensitivity Masses specifically to support her son, but she said she finds great peace in them as well.

While she loves music and other parts of traditional Masses, Beth said she was really struck from the first time how much she gets out of these Masses. She said the pared down version really offers a unique opportunity for reflection and a focus on the beauty of prayer and the Word.

“It’s more focused on that,” she said. “To me it really pushes it forward and highlights it.”

Beth’s son said he likes the Masses not just because it meets some personal needs, but also because it gives a larger opportunity to people who have disabilities or have things that make them not want to go comfortably to another Mass.

“I always really want to go to the sensory Mass,” he said, noting that he wishes they were weekly. Sometimes the mother and son attend two Masses in a weekend, if he is an altar server at one, but a sensory sensitivity Mass is also offered. The low-sensory Masses do not use servers, as there is not as much required.

Although the intended audience of these Masses are those with sensory sensitivity or other disabilities, everyone is welcome. This audience may include individuals living with autism, mental illness, social anxiety and developmental delays. The Masses include dimmer lighting, no music, and a shorter homily among other adaptations to promote a fully inclusive environment. According to a bulletin announcement “Every effort will be made to accommodate all in attendance, and all behaviors are welcome!”

Weltmer referenced a document from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that outlines guidelines for the celebration of the sacraments with persons with disabilities. In that, the bishops affirm that the Church is called to provide meaningful participation for individuals with disabilities and their families in all areas of the life of the Church.

“I believe these Masses play an essential role in our response,” Weltmer said. “I’m very grateful to Father Al.”

Beth said she would love to see each deanery in the Diocese offer this kind of Mass. Father Al said his parish is happy to offer the Masses because of the evident need. He said most of the participants are not members of his congregation, and many travel quite a distance.

“It would be wonderful if more churches offered this,” he said.

Attendees at these Masses are encouraged to bring materials that can assist with comfort during the liturgy (noise-canceling headphones, wiggle seats, weighted blankets, fidgets, etc.) The next of these Masses will be Sunday, April 14 at 2 p.m.; additional Masses are scheduled in June, September and November:

  • Sunday, June 16 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, September 8 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 17 at 2 p.m.

For more information, contact the St. Joan of Arc Parish Office at 717-533-7168 or Office@stjoanhershey.org.

(Lisa Maddux is a freelance reporter for The Catholic Witness. Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Lisa Maddux, The Catholic Witness

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