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One Simple Tool for Better Parish Inclusion

July is one of my favorite months. It has always felt like the heart of summer to me, maybe because of Independence Day celebrations and the fact that it’s my birthday month.

Having worked at Catholic Parishes for over a decade, July is also transition and change month.

It’s the month we start over with budgets (usually a good thing in Youth Ministry and as a Director of Religious Education) and it’s also usually when priests move to new assignments.

My parish just received a new Pastor this month. Even if I wasn’t already aware that July is priest-assignment-shuffle-month, and even though I’m not on staff for the parish, it would be very hard to miss that things are changing.

First, I noticed a large Our Lady of Fatima statute near the Presider’s chair. That was neat. But then something happened during the consecration this past Sunday…one of the altar servers rang bells.

Now, this is nothing new for me – I’ve heard this plenty of times before…at other parishes. However, my son was too little in the past to remember ever hearing bells at the consecration. Thankfully, he only exhibited some anxiety and mild concern and didn’t go into a meltdown.

This post isn’t about rubrics or parish politics regarding bells during the consecration. This is about an experience that reminded me of a very simple and important aspect of disability awareness and integration in parish life: implementing change.

While we managed to escape this liturgical change without a crisis, there are many autism families or families with individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder who might have hit a crisis point over the unexpected addition of the bells. It may sound silly to some, but this is the reality we live with in the autism community. This doesn’t mean parish leaders can never make a change, but this is a great learning opportunity when it comes to intentionality and integration.

Three retro, rotary pay phones hanging on a wall

Communicating Change

Nobody cares for change too often or too much, but individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have a lower threshold for tolerating change than neurotypical individuals. So, making mass announcements and bulletin announcements for a few weeks prior to implementing the consecration bells would go a long way to help ease parishioners on the autism spectrum into the change.

For example, we knew that we’d be getting a new Pastor in July months in advance. We learned who this new Pastor would be weeks in advance through mass announcements and the parish bulletin. Having this knowledge in advance allowed us to talk with our son and prepare him about seeing a new priest at mass.

So, if you are a priest, youth minister, faith formation coordinator, or any new staff member wanting to make a change to any aspect of parish life that directly impacts parishioners (e.g. liturgy, community celebrations, hospitality, faith formation classes, etc.), it’s important for you to ask “how will this impact parishioners with disabilities.” Consult with the disability communities if you’re unsure or even just to double-check that your assumptions are correct. Communicate with the entire parish, particularly the disability community about the upcoming changes so that everyone has a chance to prepare and adjust expectations.

It’s a simple detail that’s easy to overlook, but it can be a significant tool in helping individuals with disabilities, particularly autism, feel welcomed and belonging in the parish community.

7 Comments

  1. Adrienne Thorne Adrienne Thorne

    Thanks for sharing this insight! So simple, and yet a lot of us probably would not have even thought of it.

    • It wasn’t until my experiences with my son that I thought to consider this. Truth be told, I still forget to consider how even seemingly small changes can impact him sometimes.

  2. Great points. My son is on the spectrum. That kind of thing would not bother him, but other kinds of changes do very much so I get this.

    • It’s definitely a different way of thinking and takes time to develop the habit of asking “how might this impact autistic parishioners” before making any change. Thanks for reading and I’m glad this could connect to your experience in other areas of change.

  3. Great points and important for parish leaders to remember. As a teacher, I’ve had students that are warned before changes (fire drills, assemblies,etc). Those little things go a big way toward helping people thrive!

    • Fantastic example of how this idea is applied in an education setting!

  4. everydaythoughtsbybrittany everydaythoughtsbybrittany

    I’m so sorry to say that I never thought about how bells could have a negative effect on those with autism, but it makes complete sense. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Now I know to be a more mindful about the little changes that occur throughout our parish.

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