ROME – A Vatican official who works with disabled people has said this population provides a unique perspective to the ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which he hopes will lead to a mentality change making the church an ever-more inclusive place for those with disabilities.
“We must change mentality, take steps for a full inclusion of disabled people in the life of the church, including the sacraments,” said Vittorio Scelzo, who works with the Vatican department for laity, family, and life.
This inclusion will happen “when we quit thinking that they are different people from others,” he told Crux, saying that as a department, “We have said that we need to say ‘us, not them,’ when we speak of people with disabilities, because disability is something that sooner or later can touch everyone.”
“There is truly no difference in terms of who the church welcomes,” he said.
A group of people with various disabilities presented Pope Francis with a summary of a discussion that took place during a synodal listening session with disabled people in May. The group was hosted by Scelzo’s department and made the presentation during the Wednesday’s papal general audience. Scelzo spoke afterward.
According to a statement provided by the Vatican’s department for laity, family, and life, which organized the listening session, it was held to ensure that disabled people “actively participate in the synodal journey.”
Many of the participants also contributed to the diocesan synodal consultations, but the listening session provided a unique space for their voices specifically to be heard.
Each of the participants in the listening session afterwards wrote a reflection on the topic of synodality and submitted it to the Vatican department, which over the past few days compiled a synthesis of their reflections and gave it to the pope during his Sept. 21 general audience.
According to the department’s statement, the listening session is the result of a process that began two years ago on the need to more fully include disabled people in the life of the church.
For this to happen, the statement said several things need to happen, including a “change of mentality,” a recognition of the “magisterium of frailty,” and broader access to the sacraments, as well as an understanding that disability “is not inevitably linked to suffering.”
In his comments to Crux, Scelzo said, “The joy of the encounter with Jesus is not lost on anyone, it’s a joy that everyone can live. Life difficulties happen to everyone, but this does not steal or deprive the joy of being Christians.”
He insisted that the vocation of the baptized “is truly universal” and that “the Gospel is for everyone,” meaning “there cannot be a sector of people excluded from this vocation.”
Disabled people, he said, can help the church understand “how much each one of us is vulnerable, is fragile.”
“The condition of fragility is not a condition that touches some and not others,” he said. “One can have a Christian life even when there are some extra difficulties, weaknesses.”
In many societies, disability is associated with sadness and suffering, and people with disabilities are still considered to have “a life that is not worth living,” Scelzo said. “The experience of church we have discovered, however, is completely different.”
“That place where disabled people meet with Jesus, from what (is often) destined as a sad life, a contagious joy gushes,” he said, saying his department has seen in the disabled “an unexpected joy that makes the Gospel understood as an experience that gives joy to all Christians.”
Scelzo also stressed the importance of allowing disabled people to have access to the sacraments, noting that oftentimes, people with developmental disabilities are denied the Eucharist and other sacraments such as confirmation or even marriage.
Theologians in the West sometimes argue that since people with extreme development disabilities do not achieve the canonical “use of reason” – usually meant as having the reasoning ability needed in primary school – they cannot receive sacraments after baptism, even though the Eastern Churches administer all the sacraments of initiation to infants.
“No one can deny the sacraments to people with disabilities,” Scelzo said, citing Pope Benedict XVI’s 2007 exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, and numerous speeches by Pope Francis in which he stressed the importance of allowing the disabled to access the sacraments.
Many disabled people are also forced to live “where they don’t want,” and are placed in institutions, even those run by religious orders, when they would rather live “a more autonomous life,” with home assistance or with their families.
“A change of mentality is needed, people with disabilities must be seen not as people different than others, but together, ‘us and not them,’” he said.
Scelzo said that during the listening session in May, many of the disabled people who participated, and who also took part in their local diocesan synod discussions, said the summary compiled by diocesan officials failed to include their perspective, so the Vatican’s own listening session was key to their inclusion in the process.
“We handed a synthesis to the secretary general of the synod of bishops, and they were very, very receptive,” Scelzo said, saying the department for Laity, Family and Life has promised the people who participated in the listening session that things will not end there, but that they will “continue the path of listening and of reciprocal collaboration.”
“We will find a concrete path in the next few months, but certainly, it’s a new path for the dicastery of Laity, Family, and Life,” he said.
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