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In a first, Respect Life and Disabilities Awareness Month featured at same Mass

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In a first for the diocese, a single Mass was used to honor both Respect Life Month and Disabilities Awareness Month at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Vienna Oct 7. The merging of the two provided an opportunity for Bishop Michael F. Burbidge to highlight the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of all life — including those with special needs.

“Sadly, we live in a nation where the poor, the weak, the elderly, the inmate, the immigrant and persons with disabilities are not always afforded the dignity that is theirs as children of God; and it is to this world that we are sent as messengers of the Gospel of Life,” he said in his homily.

Bishop Burbidge also praised the Catholic Charities Office for the “staggering number of people in need that they help throughout the diocese” as well as Porto Charities, which was recently honored for its work promoting “inclusive education” for students with disabilities. Still, he urged that more be done.

“We have to do a better job in making sure those persons — including our young people with disabilities — are welcomed and included in all of our parishes and schools,” he said.

Darcie Girmus, the principal of St. Mark Catholic School — which has a program for students with special needs — said that events like this Mass are a key to doing just that, and hopes that Bishop Burbidge can help guide other schools to promote this kind of integrated education.

“It is awesome to see that he has an interest in this and hopefully with his guidance other schools will be inspired to take a leap of faith,” Girmus said, adding that her school had to cap the number of students with special needs at five to ensure they receive the attention that they need.

Justin Wilcox, a parishioner at St. Mark’s who came out for the Mass with his family, said that his parish led the way in providing a program for children with special needs.

“We came out to really support the community and to bring my kids, including my son, Seamus, to the Mass,” Wilcox said. “We’re so excited that the Bishop is supportive of these programs.”

Seamus is 4 years old with Down syndrome and Wilcox hopes that he will be a student at St. Mark's one day soon.

St. Mark’s has teachers on staff to work with special needs students, an initiative that  was started when longtime parishioner Bill Dalgetty approached the founding principal, Helen Brewer, to request it.

Dalgetty’s daughter, who has Down syndrome, served as a gift bearer along with Zach Fowler and Mellisa Castellanos. It was Emily’s very positive experience with the special needs education at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax that convinced Dalgetty to ask for a special needs program at the elementary-school level. 

As a Porto Charities board member, he is grateful for Bishop Burbidge’s support all year round.

“We love Bishop Burbidge and the support he gives Porto Charities at these Masses, but throughout the year, too, in terms of encouraging parishes and parish schools to begin programs and encouraging the parishes to participate in the special needs collection.”

During an announcement at the end of Mass, Porto Charities’ Leo Alonso expressed his gratitude to Bishop Burbidge as well. Alonso’s daughter, Vivian, was active at the start helping to hand out programs.

As for the altar servers, while two of them were waiting for the shuttle after reception, they expressed their gratitude for being able to serve.

“I enjoy doing it,” Richard Devilin said. “I like being close to God.”

Chris Yorke, who lives at a Gabriel Missions Home agreed, and stated how they were Fourth Degrees Knights of Columbus and both serve regularly throughout the diocese. 

York’s fiancee, Angela O'Dowd, who is also an altar server and waited with them for the shuttle, was proud of him.

“He did great,” O’Dowd said. 

Another young talent who helped at the Mass is aspiring actor Matthew Gang, who read the prayers of the faithful.

“I want to read more,” Gang said. “I want people to be happy as well as to help everyone who comes to Mass.”

Elizabeth Eisenberg read the first reading and Spencer Darling the second. Frankie Anstett, Elizabeth Brown and Tyler O’Hara also assisted as altar servers. 

Amy Mcinerny and Therese Bermpohl, respect life director and executive director respectively of the Office for Marriage, Family and Respect Life, both saw the common thread between the Mass’s two themes, respect life and disabilities awareness.

“I love that this Mass for persons with disabilities is on Respect Life Sunday because in our state we are also fighting disrespect for life at its end. We have a threat of physician-assisted suicide that we’re trying to get everyone to comment on and resist by the Oct 15 deadline via the Virginia Catholic Conference’s website,” McInerny said. “Bishop’s message in his homily today is especially important now in our diocese: Every life is cherished, chosen and sent.”





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