March 17, 2023

Worship and Evangelization Outreach / Ken Ogorek

Let’s welcome those who struggle to belong at our parishes

Ken OgorekA friend of mine who’s passionate about serving folks with disabilities recently suggested a way of having an eye-opening experience at any parish. “Every now and then,” says my friend, “stand as far back as possible before, during and after Mass.

“Like, back-of-the-narthex kind of back. And just watch. Watch who struggles just to get through the doors. Watch who struggles to hear or see. Watch who appears flustered or embarrassed because her or his child is making loud noises beyond the typical little-kid-in-church noises.

“Watch who’s the object of no small amount of staring because her or his disability is very noticeable; he or she doesn’t look like the usual, typical parishioner. Notice who, quite possibly, might not always feel welcome or included at Mass or in parish life generally speaking.

“Watch to see who might be struggling to belong.”

You can’t judge a book by its cover

Granted, we’re not mind-readers. Just because a person appears to be struggling or might not fit in with the overall group doesn’t mean that she or he is consciously suffering because of a predicament, or that each and every person surrounding her or him is uncomfortable with how he or she looks, behaves, sounds etc.—and that the discomfort of surrounding worshipers is sensed by the person in question in a way that brings sadness, self-consciousness, discomfort, etc.

But our empathetic intuition is often reliable. Folks with disabilities often struggle—physically, mentally and emotionally—in ways that many of us don’t.

Who’s not at the table?

For every person with a noticeable disability who shows up at Mass, it’s possible if not probable that at least one other parishioner whose life includes a disability (directly or that of a family member) shies away from attending. It’s perceived as too hard, too awkward, too uncomfortable.

And while perceptions are subjective, a kernel of truth can be present in these thoughts and feelings of persons with disabilities. Sometimes belonging to a parish community is harder than it should be.

So what can I do?

Awareness and acknowledgement of disabilities is where inclusion and welcoming can start, helping folks understand that disabilities of various sorts are far more prevalent in our faith communities than many people realize.

You can reach out to fellow parishioners who you know have a disability of some sort, offering to meet them at Mass. You can work with parish leaders such that parishioners hear a consistent message: “Odds are you know at least one fellow parishioner with a disability. Please be in communication with her or him such that any barriers or hesitancy about joining us for worship can be surmounted—together.”

A feather in our cap

Most dioceses don’t even have a part-time staff member who focuses on including persons with disabilities in the life of our Church, let alone a full-time disabilities ministry coordinator such as our archdiocese supports.

Here in our archdiocese, Jennifer Bryans recently started as Disabilities Ministry Coordinator in our catechetical office, and she would love to hear from you so that together we can collaborate toward a more welcoming parish for persons with disabilities. She can be reached at

(Ken Ogorek is catechetical director within the archdiocesan Secretariat for Worship and Evangelization. He can be reached at

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