Back in the 1980s, Ramona and Wenceslaus Polivka took turns going to Mass. The couple had three children, two of whom were profoundly autistic. Their third child, Marie, coped with Asperger’s syndrome. The Polivkas couldn’t bring Joseph and Laura to Mass, so one would watch the children so the other could receive the Eucharist.
The Archdiocese of Portland wasn’t unique in its lack of Masses that could make families like the Polivkas feel comfortable enough to come with their children. Most dioceses didn’t have accommodations for people with special needs, in particular, people with cognitive disabilities like autism.
The lack of church in the lives of those families and individuals brought about misconceptions about the church’s relationship with them.
“Some people had the idea that the [special needs individuals] couldn’t receive the sacraments, and couldn’t be buried in Catholic cemeteries,” says Dorothy Coughlin, the soft-spoken former director of the archdiocesan office for people with disabilities.
The Polivka family — and Coughlin — changed that. “Because of the Polivkas, we started the adapted liturgies over 30 years ago,” says Coughlin.
Today, Father Matt Libra, pastor of St. Rose of Lima in Northeast Portland, is one of several priests in the archdiocese who celebrates monthly adapted Masses for the special needs community.
Father David Schiferl, pastor of St. Alexander Parish in Cornelius, is another. He doesn’t bat an eye when an enthusiastic altar server calls out “Musica!” from the altar after the kiss of peace at a recent Spanish-language adapted Mass there, prompting a ripple of laughter from the congregation.
“This is the happiest Mass we have,” Father Schiferl says. “These are families who give more than we give them.”
The Mass began at St. Alexander 13 years ago with help from Coughlin.
At St. Rose, Father Libra says he focuses on what’s helpful for the people who come to the Mass. He clearly appreciates their special gifts. “Their desire to encounter the Lord is blatantly obvious,” he says. “They’re a great blessing both to me and the parish. They are so full of joy and authenticity. It’s really refreshing — no politics.”
Coughlin credits the Polivkas for that.
“Ramona was the one who could explain for me what would have to happen if there were to be a Mass for people with special needs,” she says.
Coughlin asked Polivka, “What would make it possible for Joe and Laura to go to Mass? What would it be like if you could all go to Mass together?”
Polivka, who had been a teacher before devoting her attention to her children, explained to Coughlin that young Joe might have a seizure, and she would need to lay him down on a pew.
Coughlin suggested pillows could be used to pad the hard pews.
Polivka worried that her children wouldn’t be able to understand the Mass, and couldn’t make it through an entire liturgy.
Coughlin recommended adapting the Mass to something closer to a children’s Liturgy of the Word: shorter and more interactive.
Polivka pointed out that her children couldn’t sing.
Coughlin proposed bells — “so anyone who is nonverbal could ring bells.”
Making it easy for people with special needs to receive the sacraments is in line with what St. Thomas Aquinas wrote back in the 13th century, that cognitively impaired Catholics have a right to the sacraments.
More recently, in 1995, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a set of guidelines for celebration of the sacraments with persons with disabilities. That document, in part, stated, “the criterion for reception of holy Communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the Body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture, or reverential silence rather than verbally.”
In Portland, the adapted Masses began at the Downtown Chapel (now St. André Bessette) with Holy Cross Father Richard Berg celebrating.
The location, on West Burnside in Old Town, was tough for the families, with no parking for people whose vehicles not only needed to be close to the church door but needed to have enough room to unload wheelchairs and other equipment.
Father Richard Huneger, then pastor of St. Rose, said he too would welcome the special needs community there. St. Rose has offered a special needs Mass ever since, with his successors, Bishop Peter Smith and Father Libra, continuing the liturgies.
Father Libra came to St. Rose of Lima and met the adapted Massgoers in 2013. “I immediately found a group of good-hearted people who were engaged in their faith,” he says. “Bishop Peter told me about it, but you can’t know until you experience it. They affect me a lot. I’m greatly encouraged and hopeful every time I leave that Mass.”
Ramona Polivka died earlier this year. Coughlin gets a little choked up when she remembers her friend. “She advocated not only for her own children but others as well,” Coughlin says. “She was a faithful mother and wife, with a great sense of humor.”
Coughlin thinks that Polivka’s greatest service was her ability — honed, perhaps, through writing letters about her children to the rest of her family — to help people understand autism. Polivka also was a steady source of reassurance for families parenting children with autism, says Coughlin. “She encouraged families to live as full a life as possible.”