By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
To look at Maureen Pratt is not to see the face of disability. For more than 20 years, Pratt, a Catholic writer, has suffered from lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s organs and can make any day – nearly every day – feel like the end of the world.
But no one peering in from the outside would ever notice her pain.
“The flare that felled me really felled me,” Pratt said last week from her home in Santa Monica, California. “The rheumatologist who diagnosed me said, ‘It’s trying to kill you, and if you don’t stop everything, it will.’ That flare lasted a few years.”
Since her diagnosis, Pratt has become one of the country’s foremost advocates for Catholics with disabilities, writing a regular column for Catholic News Service and seven books, most dealing with the role faith and reliance on God play in living with serious illness. She is also a cantor at Mass.
Pratt will be in New Orleans May 4 to conduct a workshop for the Archdiocesan Disabilities Commission, a group revived by the recent archdiocesan synod, which encouraged parishes to appoint a disabilities advocate who could act as a liaison between the parish and those with disabilities.
Pratt’s first column for Catholic News Service 13 years ago described the work of UCLA filmmakers and a TV sitcom director who had researched the effect of laughter on children receiving chemotherapy.
One group of children who watched funny cartoons before taking their dose of chemotherapy had “better overall results” than other children, who did not watch the cartoons.
“They were more resilient, they went in with better attitudes and their blood pressure was better,” Pratt said. “It was not a cure result, but they were more resilient.”
Her devotional book – “Peace in the Storm: Meditations on Chronic Pain and Illness” – first attracted an audience of Evangelical Christians and mainline Protestants before it was discovered by Catholic readers.
“So, I started meeting others within Catholic circles who were trying to see what else could be done to establish some really strong disability ministries,” she said.
Over the last 15 years, Pratt said, many dioceses have become much more welcoming to children with intellectual and learning disabilities, allowing them to prepare for and receive the sacraments of Eucharist and confirmation.
“But the majority of people who live with disabilities are not children – we’re talking the demographic of people, especially in their 60s and up,” Pratt said. “Aging brings on disabilities. One in 5 persons will be impacted by disability at some point in their life, and the main disability is ambulatory – getting from one place to another. As seniors get more and more affected by age, a lot of them just give up going to church.”
Pratt says Pope Francis has hit the right balance when it comes to caring for those with disabilities: Simply welcome everyone.
“You have to find a way to welcome everyone,” Pratt said. “Pope Francis says we are equal members of the body of Christ. God doesn’t give out different belts to people like they do in karate.”
Rather than use the word “inclusion” – which, to her, has a connotation of “unevenness” – Pratt emphasizes the concept of “full welcome.”
“It’s very much the same concept as what St. Benedict set up in his monasteries,” Pratt said. “The pilgrim or the visitor comes to the monastery as a guest, and there is somebody at the gate to greet that person. From there, a relationship forms.”
Because she is highly susceptible to infections, Pratt practices extreme care when she attends Mass. Because her disability is invisible, however, it has caused her heartache.
One time a parent was holding a toddler who had a heavy cold, and at the sign of peace, when the child reached out his hand, Pratt placed her hands over her heart and smiled.
“His father gave me a really nasty look, but I didn’t have time to go into a long explanation,” Pratt said. “What we’re basically talking about is attitudes toward one another.”
At those moments of heartache, Pratt turns to her contemplative roots.
“Pray, pray, pray for that person to have a change of heart,” she said. “We might be meeting that person at a point in their life where something isn’t happening, but I can pray that they will have insight.”
It is wonderful when parishes provide ramps for accessibility and great sound systems for the hard of hearing, Pratt said, “but the heart of full welcome is really attitude.”
Pratt said the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Washington have well-developed ministries for the deaf and websites from which parishes can download information such as pew cards for Mental Health Awareness Week.
Pratt said having individuals serving as parish advocates in the Archdiocese of New Orleans is “invaluable because that is a point person anybody can go to. To have that one person to call is sometimes all you need.”
Pratt also urges persons with disabilities to advocate for themselves. Before one special Mass, she asked the usher if incense was going to be used, because she has severe reactions to the smell.
When the usher checked and told her it would be used not only once, but twice, Pratt thanked him and explained why she had to leave.
“I also told him it would be really nice if they could put up a sign in the back of church stating that incense was going to be used. He appreciated my feedback.”
Pratt was cantoring at Mass once when she was on a regimen of highly immunosuppressive drugs. Because of that, she did not think there was any way she could receive Communion.
The pastor thought for a moment. He gave her a pyx and a bag of unconsecrated hosts. Pratt washed her hands, placed a host inside the pyx and then placed the pyx on the altar to be consecrated. When Communion came, she received the pyx unopened.
“I gave myself the Eucharist,” she said. “He solved the problem. How wonderful is that?”
Pratt has heard tough stories, like one where a person in a wheelchair was told he could not serve as a lector using a microphone from floor level because he was told he had to “be seen” at the ambo.
“That’s totally wrong,” Pratt said. “I think it boils down to understanding that our faith calls us sometimes to be creative. There are ways this can be done. We can find a way.”
Pratt worries about the utilitarian ethic that seems to have infected modern society – that a life’s value depends solely on what it can do or produce.
“The person who is comatose in bed might be viewed by society as being useless, but in reality that person is serving one of the most fundamentally important roles that anyone could ever serve – and that is, they are teaching us to care,” Pratt said.
Pratt is the author of “Salt and Light: Church, Disability and the Blessing of Welcome for All,” a resource for parishes that wish to fully welcome persons with disabilities. Pratt will be speak at a free workshop, May 4, from 9 a.m. to noon, at Transfiguration of the Lord gym, 2212 Prentiss Ave., New Orleans. Those who register by April 24 at firstname.lastname@example.org can buy Pratt’s book for $10. Call 861-6294.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.