by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven
OVERLAND PARK — There were smiles, tears of joy, and music — lots of lively music — at the March confirmation and first holy Communion Mass celebrated by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and Inclusive Catholic Activities and Religious Experiences (iCare) of Northeast Kansas, Inc.
Thirteen individuals with developmental disabilities received the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation at the Mass.
The candidates were noticeably older than the average age for receiving those sacraments. And there was a time when parents feared their children’s developmental delays would prevent them from ever receiving them.
The celebration was coordinated by iCare, a ministry that provides bimonthly Masses, religious education and monthly socials at Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park, and where both children and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities are active participants.
“We pray that you, your family and each of us receives the sweet aroma of God’s joy. Not only are you special in every way in God’s eyes — you are special and a joy to our church, as well,” Archbishop Naumann told families during the Mass.
Kevin Hill’s 22-year-old daughter Lauren was one of those celebrating her confirmation at the iCare Mass.
Hill, along with a few of his fellow class of 1984 Savior of the World seminarians — John Johnson, Javier Pedroza and David Tokic — founded iCare in 2016. The program is a re-imagined version of Religious and Education Activities for the Community Handicapped (REACH), a 1970s-era effort to serve Catholic individuals with special needs.
“I grew up at Queen, and when I got married and had my own family, we had to go to Mass in shifts because of the disruption that results from Lauren’s diagnosis,” said Hill, who recently moved with his family to Atchison and attends St. Benedict Church.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t feel welcome,” he said. “It was just that it wasn’t conducive to Lauren’s needs.
“When we started iCare,” he continued, “I had a lot of families with tears in their eyes share the same story of not being able to attend Mass as a family.”
At every iCare Mass, individuals with special needs proclaim the readings, sing in the choir, serve the Mass and bring up the gifts.
Father Bill Bruning, pastor of Queen of the Holy Rosary, concelebrated the Mass, with Deacon Jim Lavin assisting. Father Bruning took his microphone to the pews during the petitions, soliciting prayers from individuals with special needs.
“I want to express my gratitude to all those with the iCare Mass who make this celebration possible,” Father Bruning said at the conclusion of the Mass.
“I get moved to tears at every iCare Mass because this community of Catholics is such a gift,” he added.
Like the Hill family, Overland Park resident and Church of the Ascension parishioner Denise Gartner was there for her 21-year-old daughter Carly’s confirmation.
Carly, who is nonverbal and was diagnosed with autism, finds it challenging to attend a typical Mass. The Gartner family had to attend Mass in shifts, as well.
“I was thrilled to hear about iCare because Carly and I and my older daughter could never go to Mass together,” said Gartner. “It was such a God thing that the iCare Mass came along.”
“When we attend, we can feel God’s presence,” Gartner continued. “After Carly made the sacrament of first reconciliation, I could see happiness in her eyes.
“She wants to be closer to Jesus. She has that spiritual connection.”
In a nod to families raising children with intellectual and developmental disabilities — and those teachers, priests and others in the church trying to help them — Archbishop Naumann said a special prayer for marriages, families and those who work toward an inclusive environment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“Tonight is a special night,” Archbishop Naumann said. “We are so grateful for your love for Jesus and your desire to follow him.
“The Lord has taught us that we all have unique gifts. We pray tonight to feel God’s presence in a new and deeper way for each and every one of us.”