Synod struggles to hear the voice of people with disabilities

Synod struggles to hear the voice of people with disabilities

Synod struggles to hear the voice of people with disabilities

Pope Francis greets Peter Lombardi, 12, of Columbus, Ohio, after the boy rode in the popemobile during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 28. Receiving a kiss from the pope was a wish come true for Peter, who has Down syndrome and has survived leukemia. (Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)

One group's voice in some ways seems to be missing from a Synod of Bishops otherwise devoted to inclusion: People with disabilities.

ROME — On Wednesday, the oft-dubbed ‘pope of mercy’ compared abortion to a mafia-style killing, saying that it’s equivalent to hiring a hit man to “take out a human life to solve a problem.” This rejection of life, he said, comes from fear, and it becomes even more present when the unborn life might present a disability.

“Parents, in these dramatic cases, need real closeness, true solidarity, to face reality overcoming comprehensible fears,” Francis said during his weekly general audience that kept him from attending much of that day’s morning session of the Oct. 3-28 Synod of Bishops.

Perhaps the Synod of Bishops on Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment could take a cue from Francis’s outspoken example, because, in the words of Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, “we could have done more to have a visible presence of physical disability.”

As Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, Australia, told Crux, “we don’t know if there are young people with disabilities [in the synod]. A lot of disabilities are hidden, especially mental disabilities. There could be people battling with all sorts of things in their lives, even though they look to be very happy and complete. And I think that it’s actually important to recognize this.”

“Often we think of obvious disabilities like being in a wheel chair, and not realize that people might be struggling with things that are not visible,” Fisher said.

He himself has what he described as a “minor disability,” connected to an illness he had at Christmas in 2015: Guillain-Barré syndrome. The Dominican prelate was paralyzed and had to stay in the hospital for five months, trying to regain the use of his muscles and nerves. Eventually, he had to re-learn everyday activities, from walking to using cutlery.

“I got most of that back, but I still have a lingering disability in my left hand, it doesn’t work as well as my right,” he told Crux. “I struggle with things that require pinch grip, so I’m not good at tearing opening packs of crisps, which perhaps is fortunate since my belly doesn’t need any more crisps!”

Fisher added that there aren’t people in the synod with more “evident” disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, a wheel chair or having to have translators in the deaf language of their countries.

“There’s been talk in this synod about a preferential option for the young,” Fisher said. “And in this ‘preferentiality,’ you want to put in your list of those for whom God, and therefore the Church, has a particular love and concern: the poor and the young, but also the disabled.”

Young people with disabilities, as a synod father noted on the floor during the sixth general congregation, are only superficially mentioned in the cornerstone document the bishops have been using to guide their discussion. Reaching out to people with disabilities is something at least two synod fathers spoke about, one last Thursday and one on Wednesday of this week.

It’s not as if the synod couldn’t have included people with disabilities. As a matter of fact, there were two in the pre-synod meeting held in Rome in the spring, with young men and women coming from every continent.

“It was a great joy to see a young disabled man and woman at the pre-synod, and to hear their thoughts,” said Katie Prejean McGrady, who took part in that spring meeting in Rome. “It was a snapshot of the great diversity of individuals in the Church, and was a witness to the giftedness they bring.”

She told Crux that she doesn’t think the Vatican purposely left them out of the synod gathering, as only a few of the 300 who participated in that meeting are now at the synod. “This is a gathering of the bishops, after all.”

“I would hope (and I assume) they weren’t left out because they’re disabled, but simply because it’s a smaller number of young people at the Ordinary Synod itself,” she said. “Furthermore, the work we did at the pre-synod, and the document we produced, has greatly informed the discussions happening in Rome right now. Their contributions are being used, all of our contributions are present, whether we’re physically there or not, which I think is important to remember.”

According to Kenyan layman Kevin de Souza, one of the collaborators of the synod’s secretariat, one of the synod fathers suggested that more needs to be done, for instance, to help blind people better understand the Gospel.

“There’s a paragraph [in the Instrumentum Laboris] that says that young people have to be strong and fit, but there are some young people who are not strong, because they have other abilities,” De Souza said.

One of the bishops on Wednesday spoke about what his diocese is doing to integrate young people with autism, for example having all of them receive confirmation together: “He said it was a beautiful ceremony, and he also spoke about the ministry that needs to be done with other abled people.”

“It’s a very enriching experience also for the Church because they have a great dignity that we have to value,” De Souza told Crux. “They are the Church as well.”

American lay woman Sarah Yaklic, who’s in Rome as director of the Grotto Network, a project of Notre Dame University, and assists Crux with social media as part of her work for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said Francis has invited Catholics to “go out to the peripheries — not solely the geographic peripheries, but perhaps more importantly, the existential peripheries as well.”

“In my eyes, it is sad that those who are Deaf and those living with disability are still on the margins,” she told Crux. “We as Church, can and should do better in creating communities where all people are not only welcome but are invited to share their gifts and talents. This is why is it so important for Pope Francis and the Synod fathers to find a way to listen to young people living with disability.”

“I feel as though their voice is missing, and that’s a lost voice who could give witness to the power of Jesus’ love and the hope found in following him,” she said.

According to Yaklic, there are several simple steps the Church can take in walking with for instance, people who are deaf in the area of digital media, and there are “simple and inexpensive ways” to ensure all people “Jesus’ saving word.”

For Yaklic, the way the Catholic Church reaches out to people with disabilities is personal, as it “affects people I love,” but it also matters because she believes all people are born with an inherent dignity and as a Church “we should do all we can to make our methods of communicating the Good News accessible to all.”

When she was a child, she saw her mother struggle to make the decision to pull her brother from their Catholic school because it lacked the necessary resources her brother with special needs required. She received Confirmation with her uncle Walter, because before that time, there were no catechetical resources for sacramental preparation for persons with disability.

“While the Church has thankfully grown in this area, there is still more we can do,” Yaklic said. “I want my generation and all those who will come after, to have access to an encounter with the Lord. The Lord stirs hearts and loves without limitation. I dream of a Church that lives out this reality.”

Father Alexandre Awi Mello, secretary of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, acknowledged that the issue is not treated much in the document, and he too underlined the witness shared by one of the synod fathers regarding young people with autism.

But speaking with Crux, he said he has a hopeful view of what will come out in the final document: “The current document is a ‘martyr’ document. The final one will be written according to what has been presented, but will also be enriched by what’s happened in the assembly.”

Seeing that he was hand-picked by Francis to be in the commission that will draft said final document, he might actually be able to influence that outcome.

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