30th anniversary of the U.S. bishops' pastoral statement

The 30th anniversary of the U.S. bishops' pastoral statement on people with disabilities offers an opportunity to acquaint a new generation of bishops and young people with the document's message, according to speakers at an Aug. 13 "Webinar."

"I'm not suggesting you take on a whole new line of work," said Peg Kolm, director of the Office for Ministry to Persons With Disabilities in the Archdiocese of Washington. "But you need to take this work to the next generation in a partnership year."

Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, said many in the disabilities community viewed the November 1978 pastoral statement as "our Declaration of Independence." The document said there "can be no separate church for people with disabilities" but only "one flock that follows a single shepherd."

The hourlong Web-based seminar sponsored by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability brought together catechists, parish advocates, directors of disability ministry and others at more than 200 sites across the United States. Co-sponsors included the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Kolm's office, National Apostolate for Inclusion Ministry and National Catholic Office for the Deaf.

Noting that 30 years represents "a generation, the average period of time between human parents and their offspring," Kolm made a number of suggestions designed to expand awareness in a new generation of the gifts of those with disabilities and their role in the Catholic Church.

The mother of a now-17-year-old daughter with a "rare syndrome," Kolm said she once thought the church only had "the three B's" to offer her child -- "baptism, burial and back of the church." Instead she found that the bishops' pastoral became her "portal back into my church."

She said the Washington Archdiocese is planning "a full year of engagement" around the anniversary, from Nov. 16, 2008, to Nov. 15, 2009. Suggested activities for the Come a Little Closer Campaign range from speakers in classroom or youth ministry settings to film festivals or book clubs on disability-related themes to teen social events.

"Teens with and without disabilities need and want more social experiences," Kolm said. "Partner with a youth minister, special educators and other professionals in the field to have a 3-M event: Mass, meal, mission."

Benton's talk during the Webinar traced the history of disabilities ministry since the pastoral statement and outlined some emerging trends.

She said the 1978 pastoral -- portions of which were read on the Senate floor during debate on the Americans With Disabilities Act -- influenced passage of that legislation. In turn, the legislation enacted in 1990 influenced "people's expectations of access in all aspects of their lives, including access to worship," Benton said.

"While much has been done" in the past 30 years to bring the disabled into full participation in the church and society, she added, "exclusion continues to happen, and people sometimes leave the church in pain."

Describing disabilities as "a normal part of life," she said one person in five and one family in three is affected by a disability. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 41.3 million Americans -- 15 percent of the civilian, noninstitutionalized population 5 and older -- has some level of disability. This includes 6 percent of children 5 to 15, 12 percent of people 16 to 64 and 41 percent of adults 65 and older.

The recent past has seen "an ever-increasing range of disabilities" with which the ministry must be involved, including autism-spectrum disorders, celiac disease and mental illness, Benton said. Among other factors affecting disabilities ministry, she named budget cuts, the "changing face" of the U.S. Catholic Church -- including a greater percentage of Hispanic members and a growing elderly population -- and the "increasingly individualistic" American society.

During the Webinar, moderator Tom Grenchik, executive director of the bishops' pro-life secretariat, read an Aug. 15 letter from Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, episcopal moderator of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

"Today, a new generation of leaders must be recruited and trained so we can continue to advance in the 21st century our church's outreach, catechesis, advocacy and support in the important work of disabilities ministry," the cardinals said.

"We join the National Catholic Partnership on Disability in calling on all people of good will to find new pathways, develop new partnerships and bring new vitality to this ministry, ever mindful that we are one flock under the care of a single shepherd," they added.

To help participants in the Webinar follow up on the event, organizers posted a "disability ministry tool kit" on the Web site www.ncpd.org. Among the more than two dozen items in the tool kit were bishops' documents, access and inclusion models, tips for reaching those with specific disabilities, a plan developed by the Diocese of Richmond, Va., for Inclusion Sunday, lists of disability-related films and books, and suggested prayers.

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