For the last 12 years under the leadership of federal judge Jay Zainey and his wife Joy, the Archdiocese of New Orleans has celebrated a monthly Mass for children and adults with special needs.
The group, called God’s Special Children, has gathered regularly on the first Sunday afternoon of the month at St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie.
The awareness and impact of God’s Special Children fueled an interest among northshore Catholics with special needs children to form a group of their own – called God’s Northshore Blessings – and gather for Mass on the third Sunday of the month.
Inaugural Mass Jan. 15
God’s Northshore Blessings will celebrate its inaugural monthly Mass Jan. 15 at 2 p.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Mandeville. Archbishop Gregory Aymond will be the principal celebrant, and Dominican Father Charles Latour, principal of Archbishop Hannan High School, will concelebrate and serve as the new group’s regular celebrant.
“It’s very exciting, and I think it will be a good thing to get a lot of people to participate,” said Dana Vidal of Madisonville, whose 8-year-old daughter Ella has a genetic disorder that prevents her from hearing, seeing or speaking.
Vidal, a parishioner of St. Anselm Church in Madisonville, has attended the God’s Special Children Mass in Metairie several times and “really enjoyed it. The only thing is it’s hard to travel across the lake in the car, so I wondered if we could have something like that over here.”
Vidal’s experience at the God’s Special Children Mass Lancaster, superintendent of Catholic schools, if a Northshore special needs group could be formed, and that idea prompted discussions that led to the group’s formation.
“We recognize that this is such an important ministry for families, because these children are the face of the church,” Lancaster said.
Father Latour concelebrated at one of the God’s Special Children’s Masses at St. Francis Xavier and came away amazed by the powerful spiritual experience.
“I was taken by the wonderful, incredible inclusiveness of the children,” Father Latour said. “They all participated. They weren’t mere observers. They were truly participating in it as they should.”
The intent of the special needs Mass is not to take families out of their regular parish setting, Zainey said, but to raise awareness among families that their children can participate. It also has had the benefit of bringing families back to the church.
“One family had not been to Mass in 17 years,” Zainey said. “They had felt disengaged with the church, rightly or wrongly. Also, there has been an assumption that kids with special needs, with mental special needs, can’t receive the sacraments. We give the encouragement that everyone is entitled to receive Christ in the Eucharist.”
Jewell Bayhi, director of religious education at Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville, is excited about the new initiative. Mary Queen of Peace has one of the largest parish schools of religion for special needs children in the archdiocese, with about 27 attending Monday afternoon classes each week.
Bayhi said the new special needs Masses will create a more inclusive church and raise awareness about catechetical preparation.
“I think there is definitely a strong interest,” Bayhi said. “I’ve already told a couple of parents, and they are really excited. I hope more people see this and then enroll their children in special needs (catechetical) programs. People don’t realize that special needs children can receive the Eucharist. There are children and even adults out there, and no one has ever brought them to the sacraments. That’s why I’m so passionate about this.”
There are now three groups in south Louisiana that celebrate special needs Masses. In Baton Rouge, God’s Special Children hopes to celebrate quarterly Masses. For more information, contact Sharon Stickling at firstname.lastname@example.org or (225) 753-5343.
God’s Special Children on the southshore celebrates Mass on the first Sunday of the month at 2 p.m. at St. Francis Xavier Church, 444 Metairie Road, Metairie. For more information, www.godspecialchildren.org; 834-5865; email@example.com.
God’s Northshore Blessings will celebrate Masses on the third Sunday of the month at 2 p.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Church, 312 Lafitte St., Mandeville. The only exceptions are April 23 and June 25. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call (504) 861-6218.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.