Through the years, my priestly ministry has been enriched by the presence of people with special needs. In particular, I think of the several children I have known with Down Syndrome. Each of these beautiful people, in their own ways, were powerful ambassadors of compassion and kindness to me and to all those around them. They shined as unique mosaics of innocence and of unconditional love.
In a world that oftentimes forgets them, dismisses them, or labors to eradicate them, these special human beings respond with sweetness and laugher. They offer their only self-defense of hugs and affection.
In the ancient world, people with special needs were considered a curse from the gods. They were approached with fear and horror. In Roman culture, they would be choked to death at birth, or left out in the woods for the elements or wild animals to take their course in the falsely noble custom called, “exposition.” There was no room in the supposed civilizations of the ancient world for those with special needs.
With the emergence of the Christian way of life, however, a new message was heralded. The followers of the God-Man from far off Palestine believed in the profoundly novel conviction that every human being was made in the image of the One God and held a untouchable dignity that merited and called forth respect, protection, and care.
The saving work of Jesus Christ changed the world. The early Christians understood this redemption, and so they sought to announce and live the message of the Lord Jesus within every local community throughout the entire world. Christian communities become safe havens to orphans, widows, the sick, the poor, the elderly, and those with special needs.
The Christians became known for their love, selfless service to others – even to non-Christians, and their heroism in the face of danger and death. Even if pagan observers knew nothing of Christian doctrine, they could see clearly and tangibly see that these Christ-followers truly cared for other people, especially the ones that their society most abused or detested.
This was the life modeled by the Lord Jesus, God made Man. It was the life of the apostles, such as Saint Bartholomew, whose feast day we celebrate this week. The apostles surrounded themselves with fellow believers and they actively lived out this way of life. The Acts of the Apostles and the Pastoral Letters of Saint Paul recount this way of life.
The Christian message, given credibility by the suffering and self-donation of its adherents, converted the West. From the Gospel, a new and humane civilization arose. And from this Western culture, an expectation of civic brotherhood and kindness became the norm.
In the course of time, however, the foundation of this culture was questioned and cracks were created from which emerged a return to barbarism. And the first casualty of this homecoming to barbarism are the vulnerable, especially those with special needs.
There is an unspoken but discernable war going on against those with special needs in Western culture today. Children with Down Syndrome are regularly neglected or disregarded by the medical community. They are ostracized and mocked in public, sometimes even the victims of violence that go uninvestigated and unpunished. The abortion industry relies on an unspoken fear and hatred of people with special needs in its efforts to convince women to terminate their young.
In a social climate that praises itself for inclusivity, tolerance, and pluralism, those with special needs are rarely included. We have convinced ourselves, and many young parents, that people with special needs are a burden that are best terminated or left behind.
The task of every Christian generation, however, is to take up the mantle of service and to continue the sacred tradition of love and care for all. Every Christian believer is called to be a true brother or sister to everyone. Christians are particularly commissioned to be a friend and champion to those in need and to the most vulnerable among us, as well as to be the recipient of their love and kindness.
It is the Christian’s anointed duty to be the voice of the voiceless and the strength of the weak. In the Church’s preferential option of the poor, we are taught that our service and care begins with those that our society views as the last, lowest, and the least. And, by our faith and action, to show the world that the last will truly be the first, while the supposed first will in fact be last.
As we seek to fulfill this mandate, we cannot fall into our society’s neglect or dismissal of those with special needs. They are a blessing to us. We must welcome them. We need them. We are more human and spiritually stronger by their presence and love.
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