September 29, 2023

Sensory-friendly Mass is ‘perfect way’ to reach needs of stimuli-sensitive Catholics

Angela Thompson, left, poses with her daughter Natalie Thompson. As an advocate for those with sensory issues like her daughter, Angela coordinated a sensory-friendly Mass celebrated on Aug. 27 at Mount Saint Francis Spirituality Center’s chapel in Mount St. Francis. (Submitted photo)

Angela Thompson, left, poses with her daughter Natalie Thompson. As an advocate for those with sensory issues like her daughter, Angela coordinated a sensory-friendly Mass celebrated on Aug. 27 at Mount Saint Francis Spirituality Center’s chapel in Mount St. Francis. (Submitted photo)

By Leslie Lynch (Special to The Criterion)

MOUNT ST. FRANCIS—When Natalie Thompson was a child, her resistance to Mass soared beyond the usual toddler or preschooler tantrums spawned of boredom or restriction.

“It was a challenge to get ready, and an even bigger challenge once we got to Mass,” says Angela Thompson, Natalie’s mother. “Natalie loves God, loves Jesus. We didn’t know why she hated Mass. It’s only with the benefit of time that she’s been able to teach us what she needs.”

Natalie is autistic, and like many with autism, is hypersensitive to various external stimuli.

“Harsh light bulbs and the sound system would trigger inappropriate behaviors,” says Thompson. “And Natalie experienced the ceiling fans in our parish as having a ‘roaring sound.’ ”

Through Thompson’s advocacy for her daughter and others like her, the archdiocese’s first sensory-friendly Mass—tailored for those with hypersensitivity issues—was celebrated at Mount Saint Francis Center for Spirituality in Mount St. Francis on Aug. 27.

She called the Mass “a first step in bringing meaningful participation to a small segment of the Catholic population that has in the past been largely ignored or overlooked.”

‘The perfect way is Mass and the Eucharist’

The idea for the Mass was conceived a few years ago when Thompson learned about the concept at a National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) conference in Louisville, Ky.

NCPD’s mission of promoting the meaningful participation of persons with disabilities both in the Catholic Church and society resonated deeply with Thompson, who with her family is a member of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville.

As she dove into trainings focused on autism offered by NCPD, Thompson’s advocacy for Natalie quickly grew into advocacy for all autistic people, especially when she learned of the sensory-friendly Mass adaptations developed and promoted by the organization.

Such Masses remove as many distractions as possible for people with sensory hypersensitivities. Music offered is softer or a cappella, and microphones and sound systems are avoided. Lighting is dim or ambient, and there are no candles or incense. The homily is simple and sometimes presented interactively. Gluten-free hosts that comply with the Church’s requirements may be used.

Noise-canceling headphones and seating companions are encouraged if needed, as well as “fidgets”—handheld repetitive motion devices that aid in focusing unwanted movement into the fingers to improve the ability to listen.

Thompson quickly learned that beyond the archdiocese’s annual Special Needs Awareness Mass, no liturgies tailored to the specific needs of this population existed in central and southern Indiana.

With the help of Mark Hublar, a national spokesman promoting acceptance of persons with Down syndrome, and his father Al Hublar—both members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany—Thompson forged ahead with plans for a sensory-friendly Mass.

Conventual Franciscan Father John Elmer has known Natalie all her life. The priest, who serves as spiritual director for the order’s Province of Our Lady of Consolation at Mount Saint Francis Center for Spirituality in Mount St. Francis, said the center “would be delighted” to sponsor the Mass.

Jennifer Bryans, archdiocesan Disabilities Ministries Coordinator, shared information about the Mass with all archdiocesan parishes.

“A lot of families with these challenges don’t come to Mass because of the difficulties,” she said. “That’s why this [sensory-friendly Mass] is so vital, so important. And it needs to be at the parish level because that’s where the families are.”

Thompson agreed.

“We want to reach out to persons with special needs—kids, adults, parents, even families with active toddlers without disabilities, or the elderly who may be embarrassed at loss of mobility or speech through a stroke, or who experience Alzheimer’s,” she said. “All people are looking for support and understanding and meaning. The perfect way is through the Mass and Eucharist.”

‘Everyone has a purpose’

On Aug. 27, her plans came to fruition. About 50 people gathered in the chapel at Mount Saint Francis, which was lit by ambient light from the back door and windows, with a few lights illuminating the altar.

Boisterous greetings outside gave way to reverent silence inside. About 15 people with autism or Down syndrome—accompanied by their caregivers, as well as users of wheelchairs, specialized strollers and walkers—made their way into the pews.

The Mass retained all its essential elements. Soft piano notes accompanied the gathering hymn, but in prompt response to a participant’s distress, the piano was silent for the rest of the liturgy.

Father John’s homily drew on the prophet Isaiah’s words, “I will clothe him with your robe” (Is 22:21), and Jesus’s question to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mt 16:15)

Leaving the altar and drawing closer to the people, Father John asked, “Who in your family has been called by God to be a special caregiver? Your Mom and Dad? They said ‘yes’ to the gift of life.”

He then turned around Jesus’ question to the disciples, asking, “Who does Jesus say you are? You are the wanted ones. God loves us. God loves you.”

Rather than using the Nicene Creed, Father John led the group in the query and response of the renewal of baptismal promises, with enthusiastic “I do’s” ringing through the chapel. The offertory gifts were prepared in silence, and the eucharistic acclamations were spoken rather than sung.

Assisted by their caregivers, all the “wanted ones” received the Eucharist along with the community.

Scott Windell, a member of Holy Family Parish in New Albany who describes himself as having high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, spoke with The Criterion after the Mass.

“The priest did a very good job,” he said. “I was expecting no music, a more peaceful, somber Mass. I noticed several people using [noise canceling] headphones. It’s a very nice concept but impossible to cater to every need. They will perfect it.”

Mark Hublar was excited he “got to walk up with Father John and carry the Bible to the altar” during the opening procession. “I have never done that before,” he said.

Shannon Farrell was present for the Mass in hopes of learning techniques to offer a sensory-friendly Mass at her parish, St. Pius X in Indianapolis.

People outside of the archdiocese attended the Mass for similar reasons. Robby Riley, director of religious education at St. Pius X Parish in Granger, Ind., in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, attended, joined by his diocese’s director of Ministry for Persons with Disabilities, Allison Sturm.

“We’ve been given a grant to visit parishes to explore ways that they welcome persons with differences,” said Riley. “Eventually, we’ll put together best practices to share.”

That sharing began as participants enjoyed a reception after the Mass. Thompson, Farrell, Bryans, Riley and Sturm gathered to discuss their observations and to pool resources.

Later, Thompson said 20 people signed up to help establish future sensory-friendly Masses at parishes in southern Indiana. She hopes to find parishes and priests willing to host so that persons with autism and other special needs become more integrated in their local parish families.

“Everyone has a purpose,” Thompson said. “We all have a job to do.”

(Leslie Lynch is a member of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville and a freelancer for The Criterion. For more information on offering a sensory-friendly Mass in your parish, contact Jennifer Bryans at 317-236-1448 or

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