03 December 2021
The Gospel is for everyone not just for some
A reflection by Cardinal Farrell on Pope Francis' Message to people with disabilities
© L'Osservatore Romano, 3 december 2021 - Persons with disabilities are lay faithful who, by virtue of Baptism, have received the same prophetic, priestly, and royal mission as every other Christian; they represent a challenge for family apostolate and are at the center of the Church's concern in defending every human life. This is the starting point that led the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life to include the pastoral care of persons with disabilities as one of the areas of its pastoral action. In fact, this was precisely one of the most fervent requests made by the members and consultors of the Dicastery during its first plenary assembly.
In embarking upon such a journey, the Holy Father's farsightedness in uniting the competencies of the previous Pontifical Councils for the Family and for the Laity into one single Dicastery immediately comes to light. This choice has allowed for privileging, when dealing with certain themes, a comparison that is not fragmentary, rather as multidimensional and unitary as possible. As in the case of married couples, the lay and family dimensions are intrinsically intertwined. In the same manner, a unified approach starting from the three macro-fields of work of our Dicastery - laity, family and life - also helps to address pastoral challenges in a manner that is not only more correct, but also more effective. This is so even as far as the disabled are concerned.
Therefore, setting the recognition of the full ecclesial and civil dignity of all persons with disabilities as a starting point is surely not a simple preamble, but the fundamental path upon which to begin and develop any further proposal. Unfortunately, this is not a consideration that can be taken for granted, if it is true that there is a theological reflection - the so-called "disability theology" - whose main concern is to justify the affirmation that all those who experience a condition of disability are persons. Moreover, already in 1981, on the occasion of the International Year of the Disabled the Holy See felt the need to specify that “the first principle, which must clearly and strongly be affirmed, is that the disabled [...] are fully human beings". Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti (no. 98), recalls this thought and reaffirms: “Let me repeat: we need to have «the courage to give a voice to those who are discriminated against due to their disability, because sadly, in some countries even today, people find it hard to acknowledge them as persons of equal dignity»”.
An implicit denial of these statements-which might seem obvious-is the denial of the sacraments because of disability. This is a phenomenon repeatedly reproached by the last pontiffs that continues to occur in numerous contexts and to demonstrate how a deep-rooted prejudice exists, even within the Church.
In this perspective, the Holy Father's choice to address a message to people with disabilities is, in its simplicity, profoundly innovative. The Pope's request to them to commit themselves with conviction to the synodal journey acknowledges their dignity as disciples and irrevocably binds them to that holy faithful People of God about whom Pope Francis has spoken to us since his first words from the loggia in St. Peter's.
As the pontificate progresses the identity of these people becomes more and more defined. It is certainly not a community of perfect people, rather a caravan that new traveling companions join from time to time. This was the case with the Christian married couples whom the Pope invited us to consider as important Church figures, but just the same, for example, with the peoples of the Amazon or the working-class movements.
Each of these contributions has allowed us to describe another aspect of the versatility of the Church. So, while insisting on intergenerational dialogue helps us not to forget that the Church moves ahead throughout history and that what we experience is neither the beginning nor the end of the journey, in the future it will be useful to pause in order to grasp what including people with disabilities can tell us about the identity of our Church communities.
In this regard, I would like to emphasize two points among the many alternatives. The Pope's message speaks at length about friendship with Jesus: those who have had the good fortune of travelling a stretch of road together with someone with intellectual disabilities know well that this is a typical way to live one's faith. It is a primarily affective understanding that insists on the presence, even here and now, of a Word that continues to become flesh throughout the history of the world and in the intimacy of one's own life. It is the awareness that, as Pope Benedict said, and Francis has repeated, faith is not a theory, a philosophy, an idea, rather an encounter with Jesus. Friendship with Jesus is not a simple road, nor a shortcut suitable for the more naive: in his message the Holy Father recalls that it is the one that many saints - he cites Teresa of Ávila - have traveled along. In this sense, the presence of people with intellectual disabilities within our Church communities can help us to make our religious experience more relational and less rigid, to use an expression that recurs frequently in the Pope's words.
A second characteristic of the holy faithful People of God on which the inclusion of persons with disabilities helps us shed light is its universality. Pope Francis in his message expresses it with a well-chosen synthesis: the Gospel is for everyone. This is an affirmation that one cannot fail to share, but to which every Church community is called to carry out, and including those with disabilities can be a valid criterion for discernment. In this perspective, it is necessary to ask ourselves how we can ensure that the synodal journey that has just begun means truly "living a participative and inclusive ecclesial process that offers everyone—especially those who for various reasons find themselves on the margins—the opportunity to express themselves and to be heard in order to contribute to the edification of the People of God", as recommended in the preparatory document of the Synod on Synodality.
Starting precisely from a reflection on the need to fully recognize that the people with disabilities fully belong to the Church, the first campaign that the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life has decided to undertake in this area was launched: #IamChurch, I am Church. The campaign consists of five videos, which will be published starting on December 6, in which some people with disabilities talk about the meaning and way they belong to the Church. These testimonies come from different countries around the world and tell very different stories, all having in common the desire to dismiss the fact that their own being Church is a subjective and conscious choice. The videos echo the words of the Pope who, in his message, affirms: "Baptism makes each one of us a full-fledged member of the Church community, so that all of us, without exclusion or discrimination, can say: “I am Church!” The Church is truly your home! We, all of us together, are Church, because Jesus chose to be our friend”.
The Holy Father's message to people with disabilities comes at a time when the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life is beginning its work in this new area, and it is therefore particularly significant for us because it offers valuable lines of action. In particular, in recognizing persons with disabilities as Church members, it opens the doors of pastoral creativity both for the future work of the Dicastery and, above all, for that of every diocesan and associative reality.
Card. Kevin Farrell
Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life