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Church must welcome people living with disabilities, Pope Francis says


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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Populist demagoguery in the world fuels rejection of migrants, pope says


Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — Indifference, fueled by populist rhetoric in today’s world, fans the flames of rejection that threaten the rights and dignity of migrants, Pope Francis said.

Refugees from Eritrea tell Pope Francis about their journey to safety during a meeting Feb. 21 at the Vatican with participants in the VI International Forum on Migration and Peace. (CNS LíOsservatore Romano)

Refugees from Eritrea tell Pope Francis about their journey to safety during a meeting Feb. 21 at the Vatican with participants in the VI International Forum on Migration and Peace. (CNS LíOsservatore Romano)

Refugees escaping persecution, violence and poverty are often shunned and deemed as “unworthy of our attention, a rival or someone to be bent to our will,” the pope told participants of the VI International Forum on Migration and Peace.

“Faced with this kind of rejection, rooted ultimately in self-centeredness and amplified by populist demagoguery, what is needed is a change of attitude to overcome indifference and to counter fears with a generous approach of welcoming those who knock at our doors,” he said Feb. 21.

The Feb. 21-22 conference, “Integration and Development: From Reaction to Action,” was organized by the Scalabrini International Migration Network and sponsored by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

According to the forum’s website, the conference focused on refugee crisis management while aiming to “influence migration policies and practices in Europe.”

In his speech, the pope said millions of people are being forced to flee their homelands due to “conflict, natural disasters, persecution, climate change, violence, extreme poverty and inhumane living conditions.”

To confront this challenge, he said, the church and civil society must have a “shared response” of welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating migrants and refugees.

Providing access to “secure humanitarian channels,” legal paths to safety, is crucial in helping people who are “fleeing conflicts and terrible persecutions,” but are often met with rejection and indifference.

“A responsible and dignified welcome of our brothers and sisters begins by offering them decent and appropriate shelter,” the pope said.

Citing Pope Benedict XVI, the pope said the need to defend the “inalienable rights” of exiled and exploited men and women is a duty “from which no one can be exempted.”

“Protecting these brothers and sisters is a moral imperative which translates into adopting juridical instruments, both international and national, that must be clear and relevant,” the pope said.

Protection, he added, can only be guaranteed by ensuring “necessary conditions,” such as fair access to fundamental goods, that offer “the possibility of choice and growth.”

Pope Francis also highlighted the need for integration, which is a “two-way process rooted essentially in the joint recognition of the other’s cultural richness.”

Integration is different from assimilation, he said, warning that superimposing one culture over another has the “insidious and dangerous risk of creating ghettos.”

At the same time, he said, migrants are “duty bound not to close themselves off from the culture and traditions of the receiving country” while “respecting above all its laws.”

Helping migrants, exiles and refugees “is today a responsibility, a duty we have toward our brothers and sisters who, for various reasons, have been forced to leave their homeland: a duty of justice, civility and solidarity,” the pope said.

Responding to the migration crisis also involves addressing the root causes of the situations that force people to flee, he said, pointing particularly to “unacceptable economic inequality,” which violates “the principle of the universal destination of the earth’s goods.”

“One group of individuals cannot control half of the world’s resources,” Pope Francis said. “We cannot allow for persons and entire peoples to have a right only to gather the remaining crumbs.”

Recognizing each person as a member of the same human family, brother or sister created in God’s image, is key to ensuring a proper response to the crisis, the pope insisted. “Fraternity is the most civil way of relating to the reality of another person, which does not threaten us but engages, reaffirms and enriches our individual identity.”

Pope Francis called for “a change of attitude” in understanding the needs of migrants and refugees, a change that moves away from fear and indifference to a “culture of encounter” that builds “a better, more just and fraternal world.”

“The duty of solidarity is to the counter the throwaway culture and give greater attention to those who are weakest, poorest and most vulnerable,” he said.


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