Church can't be blind, deaf to people with special needs, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Catholic Church must be
welcoming and creative in finding ways to not let people’s physical,
psychological or intellectual limitations keep them from encountering God, Pope
Francis said.

“The church cannot be ‘mute’ or ‘tone deaf’ when it
comes to the defense and promotion of people with disabilities,” he told
differently abled individuals, their families and pastoral workers and
professionals who work with them.

Words and gestures of outreach and welcoming must never
be missing from any church community, so that everyone, particularly those
whose journey in life is not easy, can encounter the risen Lord and find in
that community “a source of hope and courage,” he said Oct. 21.

The pope spoke during an audience with 450 people taking
part in a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New
Evangelization. The gathering Oct. 20-22 was dedicated to sharing best
practices in engaging and catechizing persons living with disabilities — a
topic Pope Francis had specifically asked the council to look into, conference
organizers told Catholic News Service.

Fortunately, the pope told the group, there has been
progress over the past decades in recognizing the rights and dignity of all
people, especially those who are more vulnerable, leading to “courageous
positions on inclusion” so that “no one feels like a stranger.”

However, attitudes that are often “narcissistic and
utilitarian” still abound, marginalizing people with disabilities and
overlooking their human and spiritual gifts, he said.

Also still too pervasive is an attitude of refusal of any
potentially debilitating condition, believing it would be an obstacle to
happiness or the full realization of oneself, he said.

It’s an attitude, the pope said, that is seen in today’s
“eugenic tendencies to kill unborn children who display some form of

But “in reality, all of us know many people who,
even with their serious frailties, have found — even with difficulty — the
path of a good life, rich in meaning,” he said, and “we know people
who are outwardly perfect” yet full of despair.

“It’s a dangerous deception to believe in being
invulnerable,” he said, since vulnerability is part of the essence of
being human.

Two participants from the United States, who were part of
the conference organizing committee, and a father of a young woman with Down
syndrome told CNS that the usual approach of “special programs” for
people with particular needs should change because they can become a form of

For example, Sister Kathleen Schipani recalled how dark
and lonely it was going to an empty school late every Wednesday night for a
parish program meant for children with disabilities.

Sister Schipani, who leads the office for persons with
disabilities and the deaf apostolate at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said
the model they are pursuing is to have one parish religious education program
for everyone, but with options for smaller breakout groups, one-on-one
instruction or other methods that can address individuals’ particular needs.

Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic
Partnership on Disability based in Washington, D.C., said too much focus on
providing special programs also has meant some people get turned away from
their neighborhood parish because the church doesn’t have a program
accommodating a specific disability.

“The first thing is welcome the person,” she
said, and speak with them; the church is more than a collection of programs,
it’s about relationships with each other and with God. “It’s not so much
having the skills or having the professionals, it’s knowing the person and then
just an ordinary way of expressing how they belong to the church” in
catechetical formation, participating in the liturgy in some way or parish
activities, said Sister Schipani, a member of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart
of Mary.

Also, a policy for creating media should be that it is
planned from the start with everyone in mind, so that a video, for example, has
both visual captions and audio narration since digital platforms “can get
less accessible” if they rely too much on one style or format, said

Not only do people with disabilities miss out on support
and the sacraments, the whole church community loses by not including their
differently abled brothers and sisters in Christ, said Blase Brown, whose
31-year-old daughter, Bridget Mary, runs and is a
public speaker about life with Down syndrome.

“The gifts she has to share, particularly at the
level of her faith” he said, are “an untapped, beautiful”
resource. The question he always asks, he said, is why don’t dioceses put more
focus on “how day-to-day parish life, religious education, schools,
liturgy” can include people with various disabilities rather than come up
with activities that sideline them.

Being together, he said, is “the highest level of

There might be some disruption or distraction when people
with disabilities are more widely welcomed, he said, just like when a baby
cries from the pews. “This is who we are, we are people. This is living.
This is life. Everybody belongs at the table and sometimes somebody is going to
be disruptive and you deal with it,” said Brown, who lives in the Diocese
of Joliet, Illinois.

Sister Schipani said
priests can make all the difference by setting the tone and the example for the
rest of the parish. Priests can talk “from the pulpit” and parish
bulletins can explain about being welcoming, patient and comfortable with
families with children and adults with disabilities. Ushers, too, can help by
“modeling really wonderful ways of welcoming and including and giving
people choices” about seating arrangements, she added.

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