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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Melto D’Moronoyo: An accessible church for those with autism

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Church for Autism - the catholic weekly
Resurrection Sunday. Photo: Maronite Eparchy of Australia/Our Lady of Lebanon Co-Cathedral.

At the beginning of the liturgical year (November 2023), the Maronite Eparchy of Australia began what we are calling the “Accessible Church” in the St Elias Chapel of the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family in Harris Park.

The inspiration for the project was, of course, the charity of Christ which urges us on (2 Corinthians 5:14). The object is to provide a liturgy which is more “accessible,” specifically for people with autism and their families. If it is also more practical for people with disabilities to attend this liturgy, then all the better.

What we have found is consistent with the advice of Autism Australia, and that is: as a general rule, people with autism often find it intolerable to be around loud sounds, bright lights, and pressing throngs. Even incense can sometimes be too much for them. Further, the length of time of the liturgy can also be a factor: anything over about half an hour is often a trial.

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So, to this end, we meet each Sunday at 10.30am at the St Elias Chapel. We enter through a quiet entrance, where there is ample parking for the families which attend, and if anyone were in a wheelchair, there are no steps once on the footpath.

Someone is on hand at the gate to help any first-time arrivals. The chapel is small and peaceful. There is a playground just outside where children can run around with a fair degree of safety, as the playground can be closed off. This also allows for a degree of privacy. Neither do they have to negotiate the large crowds which often enter and leave our Maronite churches.

The Maronites Sisters of the Holy Family set up the chapel each Sunday, and ensure that on hot days, for example, it has been cooled. Not one word of the liturgy has been abated, and those parts which are to be chanted in Syriac are, as always, reverently sung by the congregation, led by cantors who generously donate their time and talents. No microphones or musical instruments are used, not even by the priest. Everyone has the text of the service available.

The liturgy is conducted on the principle that it is said slowly enough for those who wish to attend to join in. This means that it is said a little slower than usual. We can hear when someone chimes in a word behind the others, and we moderate our speed accordingly.

There is some singing, but only one verse of each of the mandatory hymns is sung. The balance of the liturgy is spoken, even if in a standard Maronite liturgy, it would invariably be sung. The homily rarely extends for more than a couple of minutes. The four intercessions read by the faithful have been reduced to one sentence each. This has had the wonderful result of allowing the congregants themselves to read the prayers, and so participate in the Divine Liturgy, often for the first time.

The children with autism often assist in bringing up the oblations (the length of the nave being barely 12ft). Parents have expressed a particular gratitude for the role allowed for their children, once again often for the first time.

The background sounds during the liturgy on such occasions often include the sound of children moving about around the altar. But parents always have the option of taking the children outside to the playground, for the sake of the children, not of the congregation, let alone the religious sisters and the priest.

The entire Sunday liturgy is over within 35 minutes, sometimes less. It is a full liturgy, and so everyone has attended the complete Maronite Divine Liturgy. This is often about 30 minutes or even shorter than the usual.

This, a MaroniteCare initiative, needs no more to recommend it than what has been written here. However, there is more. The noble simplicity of the Maronite Divine Liturgy emerges in such a setting, equally or perhaps even better than it does in the full choral setting we know so well.

The Divine Liturgy is above all a spiritual act: the worship of God. It is neither a performance nor a concert. It is not a community gathering. This sublime aspect of the liturgy appears as if with the morning light, surprising us with wonder each Sunday.

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