The annual Journey to Bethlehem Mass on Dec. 2 at St. Augustine Church in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood was a special occasion for those involved with the Catholic Charities Diocese of Cleveland Disabilities Ministry.
According to tradition, persons with disabilities filled many of the roles at the liturgy, including reading and bringing up the gifts during the offertory procession. The choir from St. John Vianney Parish, directed by Bill Rebol, provided the music for the Mass, which has been celebrated on the first Saturday of December for more than three decades. The church was nearly full with persons who have developmental and physical disabilities, their families and friends.
“I am so glad to see everyone here today,” said Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Roger Gries, the principal celebrant. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world. This is supposed to be the Journey to Bethlehem and I don’t know about you, but it was a journey trying to get here with all the roads closed,” he said. Earlier in the morning, a popular race closed many streets in the Tremont area.
Bishop Gries said the liturgy was celebrated in honor of the late Carol Oden who for many years carried the baby Jesus statue to the altar in her wheelchair, accompanied by her sister, so it could be placed in the manger. Oden died in June.
Marilyn Scott, program director for Disability Services, said Oden’s sister accompanied a young man named Matt who carried baby Jesus to the bishop this year.
Others carried the shepherds, sheep, cows, the three kings, an angel, Mary, Joseph and other pieces of the Nativity scene that were arranged in the stable near the altar by Dennis McNulty, director of Disabilities Services.”
“I guarantee you that if Jesus was here personally – he’s here in the Eucharist – but if he was here personally, he’d give each of you a hug because God loves us and he gave us his son, Jesus,” said Bishop Gries.
The bishop said Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger at Bethlehem, but he comes to us at Mass “wrapped in the Eucharist. Jesus came to show us love. He cared for the sick, healed the ailing, lifted up those who couldn’t walk and helped the blind,” he added.
Bishop Gries said he loves to celebrate the Journey to Bethlehem liturgy. “There are many memories and I love this as a way to help me prepare for Christmas. I love to be here with you and to share lunch with you afterwards. Let’s thank God for being here,” he added.
Concelebrating the Mass were Father Andy Turner from Borromeo and Saint Mary seminaries; Father Joe McNulty, St. Augustine pastor; and Father Ben Jimenez, SJ parochial vicar at St. Augustine. Deacon Ray Daull assisted with the liturgy. The bishop also acknowledged those who helped plan the celebration and those who participated in the liturgy.
Bishop Nelson Perez surprised the congregation and greeted them as they left the church to enjoy a box lunch in the church hall. Bishop Perez chatted with people during lunch and posed for photos.