Catholics with special needs ‘show us the face of Christ,’ says Burbidge

ZM disabilities Mass 60 002 1 Bishop Michael F. Burbidge accepting the offertory gifts at the Mass for Persons with Disabilities, Sept. 29.  | ZOEY MARAIST/Arlington Catholic Herald

Catholics with special needs are a central part of "who we are and what we do" as a community, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington told attendees of the diocesean Mass for Persons with Disabilities on Sunday, Sept. 29. 

Burbidge told the assembly that he hopes and intends to work so that every school and parish in the Arlington diocese is able to offer special education and inclusion programs.

The Mass was sponsored by the diocese's Office of Faith Formation, Porto Charities, and Holy Spirit Church in Annandale, where the Mass was celebrated. The Virginia-based branch of Porto Charities works to help and support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Burbidge drew from Sunday's Gospel reading, the parable of the poor man, Lazarus, going to heaven while the rich man went to hell. 

"I do not think the rich man intentionally and deliberately did anything evil. He did not order Lazarus from the gate. He did not treat him intentionally cruelly," said Burbidge. 

"The failure of the rich man was that he simply did not notice Lazarus right there in his midst. Instead, the rich man accepted him as part of the landscape." 

In today's world, it is important to not become like the rich man and ignore the suffering of those around us, even if this is not an intentional act, Burbidge said. He challenged those at the Mass to search for ways to assist those who may need help, including in the diocese's schools. Burbidge explained that many Catholic schools in the diocese have programs to include students of varying abilities. 

"I want to highlight today the expanded services and inclusion and options programs that our Catholic high schools and some of our elementary schools [have], where those with learning challenges and gifts are part of who we are and what we do," said Burbidge.

He said that students with special needs who attend these schools "show others the face of Christ and bring out the best in all of us."

Fifteen diocesan schools currently enroll students with special educational needs. The bishop said it is his aim that every part of the diocesan community be able to accommodate students with special needs.

"It is my expressed desire and hope and intention to make these expansion programs part of every parish and every school," said Burbidge. Presently, three of the diocese's five Catholic high schools have programs that serve students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. 

Dr. Joseph Vorbach, who serves as the superintendent of the Diocese of Arlington's Catholic schools, told CNA that expanding inclusivity at schools is a "growing priority" in the diocese. 

"With Bishop Burbidge's vision and support, schools are initiating new programs and expanding existing ones that benefit not only the students with intellectual disabilities, but also entire school communities as everyone becomes more acutely aware of individual differences and challenges," said Vorbach.  

"Moving in this direction has been possible because of bold leadership at the school level empowering wonderfully creative and mission-focused educators."

Sacred Heart Academy, a diocesan elementary and middle school in Winchester, VA, was chosen by the Virginia Division of Rehabilitative Services to receive the Winchester Division of Rehabilitative Services "Champion Employer Award." This award recognizes employers who "go above and beyond" to employ and support people with disabilities.

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