Adapting to our ‘sign language’



There was a woman who was making a week-long retreat at a monastery, and she would attend Mass with the community every day. She could not help but notice that the priest celebrating the Masses that week never genuflected at the times he should during the Mass. As the week went on, it angered her more and more that the priest was not celebrating Mass the way he should, showing the expected and proper reverence.

Finally, at the end of her week, she went to the abbot and voiced her complaint. The abbot listened to her and then responded in his gentle-yet-firm way. He explained to her that this particular priest, a holy and gentle man himself, wore leg braces due to a childhood illness; and those braces made it impossible for him to genuflect. The braces were not visible under the alb he wore for Mass. The abbot thanked her for her concern, and he asked for her prayers for him and for the whole community as he promised to pray for her. She left this encounter probably embarrassed but hopefully with a changed perspective.

In the Mass and other sacraments, invisible realities are communicated through visible signs. As baptized members of the Body of Christ, we participate in the liturgy using a “sign language” – singing together in unity; vocally expressing our needs and thanks to God; standing, sitting, bowing or genuflecting, externally reflecting different internal attitudes of prayer or reverence. This common language unites us and helps us to celebrate together.

Some of our brothers and sisters may have trouble “speaking” our common language through no fault of their own. It is not that they do not like it or are not willing to participate – their individual differences may necessitate adaptations to our “sign language.” It could be physical, verbal or cognitive. For whatever reason, they cannot express their participation in the way others do.

However, just because one is incapable of expressing the language of participation in the same way does not mean that their participation is less or, even worse, that they should not participate at all. Rather, we are compelled as members of the Body to uphold their baptismal dignity and the call that comes with it to grow in holiness through participation in the sacraments, even if that means adapting the language to make it more accessible for them or learning how to make appropriate accommodations. No one is ever bound to do the impossible.

The woman could not see the priest’s braces because of his alb. We do not define others by supposed limitations, but by our own baptismal garments, which reflect new lives as part of the Body of Christ. Let us build up the Body by learning to speak the language together, helping one another grow in holiness and participate in God’s saving work among his people.

Matt Miller serves as Director of Worship for the Diocese of Evansville.