A Living and Vital Part of the Church Community

 

                         Persons with Disabilities: A Living
                   and Vital Part of the Church Community
 
                                           by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua
 
 
 
Now you together are Christ's body; but each of you is a different part of it. (I Corinthians 12:27)
 
In my own training and in my years as a young priest, I had very little experience with persons with disabilities. I vividly remember one encounter a few months after I was ordained when a young mother asked me to bless her and her two young daughters. When I bent down to ask their names, the little girls smiled beautiful smiles but did not answer. Upon learning that they were both deaf, I found myself confused, almost angry. Why had this mother asked for my blessing? What could I do? I did not have the power to make them hear as Jesus did when He put his fingers into the ears of the deaf man. Then I became aware that this woman was not asking for a miracle but for what any mother would ask for her children—God's power and grace in their lives and in her own to be the mother they needed.
 
As with my experience with these deaf children, many of us typically feel a sense of powerlessness and helplessness when confronted by a child without sight, a stroke patient unable to speak, a young man whose sole body movement is a painful turning of his head. Persons with disabilities make us feel uncomfortable because they also remind us of our own vulnerability; the inescapable reality that for all of us life ultimately leads to death. Our disabled brothers and sisters are prophets in our midst giving lie to what others have termed the “cult of perfection,” a false religion whose gods of perpetual youth and beauty are worshipped without question, particularly in the nations of the First World.
 
We need to be aware not only of the presence and needs of persons with disabilities in our midst but also of our own attitudes and feelings. Often we find it easier to isolate and ignore those whose experiences confront the myth that we have control over our lives and our destiny. Parents of a mentally ill son speak with understandable sadness about parish priests who never inquired about their well-being or that of their son. This couple has channeled that bitterness into advocacy and education to overcome the stigma of shame that still attaches to persons with mental illness and their families.
 
Even those of us who have overcome our fear and ignorance to become professionally, pastorally, or personally involved in the lives of persons with disabilities often distance ourselves by categorizing, objectifying, or confining to their disability the persons we seek to serve rather than, as my brother bishops phrased it in their 1978 Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities, “working for a deeper understanding of both the pain and potential of our neighbors... whom disability may set apart.” Medical researchers and health care workers treat persons with physically disabling conditions as medical problems to be diagnosed and cured. Human service administrators view the struggles of persons with mental illness to reintegrate into community settings as faceless caseloads whose well-being is largely a matter of adherence to regulations and access to public funds. Church catechists perpetuate the myth of the “holy innocence” of young adults with mental disability by resorting to the use of children's materials rather than by working to adapt and simplify more age-appropriate curriculum. A blind woman who is married, a mother, a computer instructor with a Master's degree, and a lector in one of our parishes states that for her “the greatest suffering is not in my disability but in the attitudes of others” who seek to define her by and confine her to her blindness.
 
In valuing persons with disabilities as worthy of respect and dignity, we need look no further than the example of Jesus himself who sought the company of those whom the society of his own day often ignored and rejected. His healing of their bodies was symbolic of the spiritual healing of which all of us are in need. The gospels tell us that when the blind beggar Bartimaeus approached, Jesus did not presume what his needs were but accorded him the respect of asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” On another occasion, Jesus felt his healing power respond to the faith-filled touch of the woman with a hemorrhage, anonymous in the pressing crowd. He insisted on having her come forward, not to scold her as she first suspected but to affirm her faith and courage and to put a human face on the outpouring of divine power. Here and throughout his public ministry, Jesus knew that the people he touched were more than their disability. He was exquisitely aware of the image of God reflected in each of them.
 
...The parts are many but the body is one. The eye cannot say to the hand, `I do not need you,' nor can the head say to the feet, `I do not need you.' What is more, it is precisely the parts of the body that seem to be the weakest which are the indispensable ones...(I Corinthians 12:18-22)
 
First we must become aware of our attitudes toward our disabled brothers and sisters since attitude is often the first barrier they encounter and the one most resistant to change and removal. But our attitudinal “metanoia” must be accompanied by actions which promote the inclusion of persons with disabilities in the life of our Christian communities. Evangelization presumes a welcoming community—one whose door is always open. Often enough our church doors may indeed be open but a person using a wheelchair faces a mountain of steps to get to that open door!
 
A recently enacted law in the United States called the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public and commercial entities to make their facilities accessible to persons with disabilities. The ADA has been hailed as perhaps the most far-reaching legislation ever passed guaranteeing civil rights to an estimated 43 million disabled Americans. By virtue of their baptism into the Body of Christ, our disabled members already possess the right to participate fully in the liturgical and sacramental life of our parishes. As one visually and hearing impaired woman who participates in the parish choir by interpreting the songs in American Sign Language put it so well, “We hunger for the Word and want to hear it like anyone else. We who are disabled have a right to the truth and to be members of the Body of Christ with equal privilege to share His table.”
 
It is foolhardy to pretend that architectural accommodations, assistive listening devices, large print and braille materials will not require the expenditure of often scarce funds by parish communities already struggling with the high maintenance costs of old, deteriorating buildings and the more pressing demands of social outreach to people in need. To quote again from the American bishops' pastoral statement: “Mere cost must never be the exclusive consideration, however, since the provision of free access to religious functions for all interested people is a pastoral duty.” Like the friends of the paralytic, who gained access for him to the healing touch of the Lord by lowering him down through the roof, we must be persistent and creative in assuring our disabled members the opportunity to encounter the Lord in our midst.
 
Nor should any of us who are temporarily able-bodied ever underestimate the intensity with which our disabled members desire to join us. Not long ago a woman who uses a wheelchair after becoming paralyzed as a result of a car crash a dozen years ago was asked to evaluate recently completed accessibility features of our Cathedral in preparation for a special Mass for persons with disabilities and their families. Two diocesan staff accompanying her were busy making notes of which doors would need to be propped open and how the traffic flow of more than seventy wheelchairs might be managed when she paused at the top of the center aisle in front of the high altar and requested a few moments alone to pray. When she rejoined the others, there were tears in her eyes as she confided that, prior to her accident, she and her husband had celebrated twenty-five years of marriage together with couples from all over the archdiocese at the Silver Anniversary Mass at the Cathedral but that she had assumed she would never be able to return for future celebrations.
 
Equally important as making our churches accessible is adapting our programs and activities to allow the full participation of persons with disabilities. At our annual retreat for deaf women, one of the retreatants spoke of the pain she experienced as a child a half century ago when she was denied the reception of her First Holy Communion because she was deaf. Fortunately, a young parish priest sensed both her hurt and her longing, and prepared her himself with individual instructions and then vouched for her readiness. As so deeply felt by this woman, the wounds of the past can only be healed by our continuing efforts at inclusion.
 
Such an effort is evident in the story of a young man with mental disability who has lived more than half of his twenty-nine years in an institution. Abandoned by his mother and with no family connections, he nevertheless has a personal relationship with God. Although never baptized he has been active in the facility's Catholic program as both a choir member and sometimes an altar server. Now on the verge of moving out into the community to his own apartment, he has expressed a desire to become a member of the Church. Contact was made with the local parish and plans are underway to welcome him into a group of catechumens also preparing for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. He may never be able to study the Scriptures or reflect on papal pronouncements, but his heart will be ready.
 
There is a variety of gifts but always the same spirit...in the one spirit we were all baptized, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as citizens, and one spirit was given to all...(I Corinthians 12:4,13)
 
Just as that young man will contribute his considerable energy and enthusiasm for the Lord in his new church community, so too do all people with disabilities bring gifts to the service of the Lord and his people. I first began to develop an appreciation for what they are able to teach us two decades ago when I became the chaplain at a home for disabled children, many of whom had also been abused and abandoned. Perhaps my favorite of all those with whom I came into contact at Mercy Home for Children in Brooklyn was a young man with mental disability named Frantz. Unimpressed by worldly credentials and unencumbered by material goods, Frantz's goal in life was a simple one: “to be in heaven with Jesus.”
 
Jean Vanier, founder of the first L'Arche community, notes that it is the ability of persons with mental disability to lead with their heart rather than with their head or their hands that makes them masters in the way of the heart. It is we who are handicapped by our ambitions, our intellect, and our pride from understanding as Saint-Exupry's Little Prince put it that “what is essential is invisible to the eye” but detectable by the human heart. In his hunger for love and his willingness to love me for myself and not for what I had or did, Frantz helped me to understand how simple yet profound is the unconditional love of God for each of us. On the occasion of his First Holy Communion, as I was greeting the communicants before the service, Frantz spoke up, “Father Tony, you are bringing Jesus to me today.” “Yes, Frantz,” I replied, “and you are bringing me to Jesus.”
 
That was a happy day for Frantz but also one of suffering. I remember watching him turn around a number of times during the liturgy and I knew he was looking for his mother. She did not come. The mystery of suffering is very evident in a young woman with schizophrenia who never knows whether she will recognize herself in the mirror in the morning. For whom sometimes days and months at a time are lost down the dark hole of her illness. She teaches us that there is no answer to the question of why this is happening to her. We marvel at her faith and her refusal to despair. All we can offer is a response of true compassion—to suffer with her, to be a fellow pilgrim on her journey. Jesus chose to identify with our weakness and our pain, and as the Suffering Servant brought us to new life by his passion and death. So too, disabled persons for whom physical pain and psychological distress are often constant companions provide us with vivid reminders of how indomitable is the human spirit carrying the crosses daily with courage, perseverance, and sometimes even joy.
 
As the blind woman whom I quoted earlier puts it: “God doesn't care if I'm disabled. He still expects me to do my thing.” The disabled members of the Body of Christ challenge us to work out our own salvation, to make use of our own unique gifts and talents because they require no less of themselves. A man who spent more than a decade in a state mental hospital admits that he must “work at being a believer in Christ” but the “joy he experiences from his fellow believers uplifts his spirit and renews his hope.” The mother who lost a beloved son to AIDS now feels called as a person of faith to reach out to others in need of support and reconciliation. The quadriplegic young man who edits a monthly newsletter provides spiritual reading for hundreds of others, many of whom are shut-ins. Unlike the unprofitable servant in Jesus' parable who buried his talent and then made excuses when his master returned, our disabled brothers and sisters make no such excuses for themselves. Can I do less?
 
Having reflected on our need to be aware of our attitudes toward persons with disabilities, to provide access for them to our buildings and our programs, and to appreciate what their presence teaches us, let me close by recalling the Gospel account of the Risen Lord's appearance to Thomas. Absent on the occasion of Jesus' appearance on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Thomas remained skeptical of the other disciples' account of having seen the Lord. He demanded to see the nail marks in Jesus' hands and feel the sword's wound in Jesus' side. A week later Jesus returned with Thomas present and the apostle's doubt gave way to a profound profession of faith: “My Lord and my God.” Christ's body still bore the wounds of his passion. Once the marks of his suffering, they now became proof of his transformation into glory. Like Thomas, the world needs proof that the Church is indeed the Body of Christ by the presence of our disabled brothers and sisters among us.
 
 
Editor's Note: This address was delivered by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua at the Seventh International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers at Vatican City in November, 1992.
 
 
 
 
                              This article may be reprinted provided you credit the source:
                    Opening Doors, National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities
                                                         Washington, D.C.