By Christina Leslie | Correspondent
A Burlington County Girl Scout is well on her way to achieving her Gold Award and giving a helping hand to families needing a more tranquil worship experience.
Shannon Rizzo, a parishioner in St. Isaac Jogues, Marlton, has inspired her parish – as well as that of St. John Neumann, Mount Laurel – to institute a monthly special needs, low-sensory Mass.
The 17-year-old senior in Marlton’s Cherokee High School began the project last June, receiving the enthusiastic cooperation of Father Phillip Pfleger, pastor in both parishes, and Marlton’s director of religious education, St. Joseph Sister Mary Kay Kelley.
Rizzo found the inspiration for her Gold Award project close to home – her older sister, Danielle, is autistic, and her parents have created a faith formation kit and written a prayer book for families and children with special-needs.
“I have watched her struggle my whole life,” Rizzo said. “A lot more families have trouble at Mass. This project makes [church-going] a better environment for them.”
Low-sensory Masses offer a more soothing environment for individuals who might be overwhelmed by mainstream Masses. The lighting in the church is lowered, bells are not used, music is softer, homilies may be shortened and there is a special blessing at the conclusion of Mass.
Additionally, individuals with special needs may take a more active role in the liturgy as altar servers, readers or gift-bearers.
The Girl Scouting Gold Award, the highest achievement in Scouting, recognizes girls for demonstrating extraordinary leadership through “Take Action” projects, which have lasting impact in their communities. Estimated to take at least 80 hours to complete, the Gold Award requires Girl Scouts to identify and analyze an issue, build a team of assistants, create and present a plan, gather feedback, take action, and educate and inspire others.
An invitation to the low-sensory Masses lives on the websites of St. Isaac Jogues and St. John Neumann Parishes.
Father Christopher Colavito, parochial vicar in both parishes, said these Masses “open the liturgy to those who do not normally attend” and that the lower lights and softer sounds offer each parishioner the opportunity to worship without burden or distraction.
“As a full community, all participate in the Masses,” Father Colavito said. “[The Masses] allow us to be more aware with the issues others have, and are meant to bring us together.”
Instituted this past November, the Masses are celebrated at the second Saturday’s Vigil Mass, and alternate between the 5 p.m. celebration in St. Isaac Jogues Church and the 4:30 p.m. Mass in St. John Neumann Church. Recently, Rizzo posted a table with brochures to explain the differences in the Mass and describe other area resources for those emotionally or intellectually challenged.
The college-bound Girl Scout, who is considering a career as a teacher of languages, reported about six families with special-needs members blended into the congregation.
“People are accepting,” Rizzo said happily. “A few of them just stumbled upon the Mass and told me, ‘I had no idea this was here. We will come back again.’”