ROME – Pope Francis weighed into a long-standing debate about whether people with intellectual disabilities should be able to receive the sacraments Thursday, saying the disabled are members of equal standing in the Catholic Church and, as such, have the same right to the sacraments as everyone else.
Pointing to the theme for this year’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities, “Building Back Better: Toward a Disability-inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable post-COVID-19 World,” the pope in his Dec. 3 message for the day said that to help society “build back better” means working toward the inclusion of disabled people.
Efforts toward this inclusion, “must also entail efforts to promote their active participation,” he said, adding, “Before all else, I strongly reaffirm the right of persons with disabilities to receive the sacraments, like all other members of the Church.”
“All liturgical celebrations in the parish should be accessible to them, so that, together with their brothers and sisters, each of them can deepen, celebrate, and live their faith,” he said, insisting special attention be given to disabled people who have not yet received the sacraments of initiation, meaning Baptism, Confirmation and First Communion.
Disabled people “should be welcomed and included in programs of catechesis in preparation for these sacraments,” he said, adding, “No one should be excluded from the grace of these sacrament.”
Pope Francis’s message, published Thursday, is the latest in a series of moves from the Vatican pushing for disabled people to receive the sacraments – a topic still disputed among some theologians for people considered unable to understand the nature of the sacraments and to make a free choice to receive them, but for which Francis in his message appeared to give a clear pastoral ruling.
In June the Vatican issued a new set of guidelines for catechesis insisting, among other things, that the Church’s sacraments are a gift, and as such, they cannot be denied to disabled people.
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Over the past five years, Vatican offices for culture and evangelization have organized numerous conferences on so-called “Disability Theology,” exploring how to make the Church a more inclusive place for people with disabilities, particularly in catechesis.
In Thursday’s message, Pope Francis noted that many people are facing hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but “some of us are struggling more; among them are persons with serious disabilities.”
Recalling the Gospel parable of the house built on rock versus the house built on sand, the pope said the rain, wind, and rivers that threaten the house in the parable are akin to the “throwaway culture” so prevalent in modern time.
Under this mentality, he said, “some parts of our human family, it appears, can be readily sacrificed for the sake of others considered worthy of a carefree existence. Ultimately, persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor and disabled.”
Francis noted that over the past 50 years, progress has been made in both the Church and in society as a whole in terms of recognizing the “dignity of each person” and promoting the inclusion of those facing physical or psychological limits.
Yet at the cultural level, “much still stands in the way of this trend,” he said, noting that attitudes of rejection, narcissism and utilitarianism are still prevalent, giving rise “to marginalization that ignores the inevitable fact that frailty is part of everyone’s life.”
“Indeed, some with even severe disabilities, despite great challenges, have found the way to a beautiful and meaningful life, whereas many ‘able-bodied’ people feel dissatisfied or even desperate,” he said, stressing the importance of promoting a culture of life which affirms the dignity of every person and defends the disabled, “of all ages and social conditions.”
Pointing to the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan, Francis said each day people must choose whether to follow the example of the Samaritan who cared for the wounded man on the side of the road, or that of the “indifferent bystanders.”
Noting that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated global inequalities, with a particular impact on the most vulnerable, he said that because of this, inclusion should be the first “rock” in building programs and initiatives at all levels of society ensuring that “no one, especially those in greatest difficulty, is left behind.”
“The strength of a chain depends upon the attention paid to its weakest links,” he said.
When it comes to the Church, the pope stressed the need to “make available suitable and accessible means for handing on the faith,” particularly those which are free of cost and which take advantage of new technologies, which “have proven so important for everyone in the midst of this pandemic.”
He also insisted on the need to provide training for priests, seminarians, religious, catechists and pastoral workers so they know how to interact with the disabled and use inclusive pastoral tools.
Parish communities “should be concerned to encourage among the faithful a welcoming attitude towards people with disabilities,” from the removal of “architectural barriers” to fostering an attitude of welcome and solidarity with disabled people and their families,” he said.
“Our aim,” he said, “should be to speak no longer about ‘them,’ but rather about ‘us.’”
Emphasizing the need for disabled people to become “active subjects” in both society and the Church, Pope Francis noted that many disabled feel “they exist without belonging and without participating.”
“Much still prevents them from being fully enfranchised,” he said, insisting that their participation in catechesis is a source of enrichment for the whole ecclesial community.
He said greater efforts must be made to provide disabled people with adequate training, allowing them to acquire greater knowledge in the fields of theology and catechesis.
“I trust that, in parish communities, more and more people with disabilities can become catechists, in order to pass on the faith effectively, also by their own witness,” he said, and offered his encouragement to all those devoted to working with the disabled, often without recognition.
Francis closed his message voicing hope that the Church’s desire to “build back better” would give rise to “new forms of cooperation between both civil and ecclesial groups and thus build a solid ‘house’ ready to withstand every storm and capable of welcoming people with disabilities, because built on the rock of inclusion and active participation.”