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Church must welcome people living with disabilities, Pope Francis says

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — 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.

Pope Francis greets a French nun with Down Syndrome during an audience with catechists and people with disabilities at the Vatican Oct. 21. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

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 imperfection.”

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 segregation.

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 Benton.

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 ButterfliesForChange.org 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 respect.”

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, Ill.

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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Order of Malta in Lebanon: Seeing the face of God in the disabled

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CHABROUH, Lebanon — In a pristine mountain setting in Lebanon, a female volunteer gently takes hold of the hands of Mohammed, a disabled adult who has trouble communicating. She gazes into his eyes, still shaded in heart-shaped sunglasses from the dress-up activity a few hours earlier, as she engages him in a dance to the rhythm of the music playing in the background.

Smiling contentedly, Mohammed bows his head to kiss her hand, and she responds with a kiss on his forehead.

A man identified only as Charbel engages with his volunteer, Jack Straker of England, during a camp at the Order of Malta Lebanon's center in Chabrouh, Lebanon, July 5. The Order of Malta Lebanon brings together disabled people from institutional settings and volunteers to spend a week together for a camp. (CNS photo/courtesy Sandra Fayad, Order of Malta Lebanon)

A man identified only as Charbel engages with his volunteer, Jack Straker of England, during a camp at the Order of Malta Lebanon’s center in Chabrouh, Lebanon, July 5. The Order of Malta Lebanon brings together disabled people from institutional settings and volunteers to spend a week together for a camp. (CNS photo/courtesy Sandra Fayad, Order of Malta Lebanon)

“By showing acts of love, we are demonstrating that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God,” Anton Depiro, a 30-year-old Catholic volunteer from London, said during a recent camp for people with disabilities, run by the Order of Malta Lebanon.

As Depiro affectionately put his arm around Mohammed, he introduced his middle-aged guest like a proud brother, saying, “He’s very shy and quiet.” He said they were “working together slowly and getting to know each other, and we’re finding ways we can interact.”

The issue of disability is still somewhat of a taboo in Lebanon, and families often experience shame when they have a child with a disability. Because the Lebanese government does not offer support for people with disabilities, many families resort to putting their family member into an institution, where there is little connection with the outside world.

The Order of Malta Lebanon addresses this inadequacy by bringing together disabled people from institutional settings and volunteers to spend a week together at its center in Chabrouh for a camp. Each disabled camper is paired with a volunteer for complete care and attention.

One of the aims of the Order of Malta Lebanon camp is to give guests “the love and respect they deserve and to give them back their humanity,” Patrick Jabre, project director for the Chabrouh camp, told Catholic News Service. Jabre was among the first volunteers when the organization hosted its first camp there in 1997.

Depiro said volunteering with the guests can be challenging, for example, waking them to wash and get dressed for the day.

“But it’s simply about sharing love with our brothers and sisters. After a while, you find the guest starts to look after you,” he said.

The motto at Chabrouh is, “Our guests are our lords, and we are here to serve them.”

So, if a guest signals to the volunteer a desire not to participate in the group activity in progress, the pair might instead play a quiet game, or just sit together and hold hands while taking in the spectacular views from the camp. Chabrouh, which is near Faraya, a popular skiing destination, is 6,200 feet above sea level.

Camp activities include hiking, olive picking, theatre plays, “Olympic” games as well as an outing to the beach.

Jack Straker, 25, a Catholic volunteer from England, said his guest, Charbel, who is mute, “has ups and downs all day.” Middle-aged Charbel sometimes makes sounds of approval or disapproval. That morning, Charbel especially enjoyed washing up.

“Charbel likes to receive kisses. He goes up to people and presents his cheek,” Straker added.

“To see the face of God in the face of the guest helps to renew a lot of people’s faith,” Straker said, referring to the Chabrouh camp experience as a “silent evangelization.”

Each day begins and ends with a group prayer. Mass is celebrated most days, and confession and the anointing of the sick are available.

Melkite Father Romanos Bou Assi, director of the center, said the daily schedule “is always engulfed in the grace of the Lord.”

Although the volunteers come from different paths and an active Christian spiritual life is not a prerequisite, the camp experience encourages them to “think deeply about the meaning of their lives,” Father Bou Assi said. Such reflection, while working closely with the disabled, the priest explained, also can help the volunteers to understand “the things that sometimes cripple us in life” and the importance of having a relationship with God.

Chabrouh underwent an extensive renovation and expansion, whereby two buildings were joined and a new building added in time for the 2016 camps. Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite Catholic patriarch, will consecrate the center Sept. 3.

This year’s schedule at Chabrouh included Order of Malta volunteers from four European countries as well as from Lebanon for 18 separate weeklong camps, including two at Christmastime. In all, about 650 volunteers and 500 guests, 15-20 percent of whom are Muslim, will participate. The organization also hopes to receive delegations from North and South and America for future camps.

After each camp, volunteers with the Order of Malta Lebanon visit the former guests where they reside.

The order also sponsors a course for college students, who spend 10 months in Lebanon learning about the region, faith and coexistence, while working daily with the disabled in institutions across the country.

Marwan Sehnaoui, president of the Order of Malta Lebanon, fondly refers to the Chabrouh camp as a little family and a “house to learn how to love.”

“When you look around you and see the state of the world, you understand that something is missing,” Sehnaoui said, citing murder, suicide and bloodshed rampant in the world today. “So we decided that the spirituality of this house is to teach how to love. Because a world without love cannot work.”

Sehnaoui stressed that the experience of the camp instills in volunteers a hope that “together, they can join hands for a better world through loving the disabled.” At the same time, the guest also discovers a capacity to love.

“Christ resides in these suffering people, and Christ, through these disabled people, is an instrument of peace and coexistence,” Sehnaoui said, adding that in Lebanon, “all this is being done on a holy land.”

— By Doreen Abi Raad

 

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