Pope Francis met with the Italian Autism Foundation in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall on April 1, 2022. / Vatican Media
Vatican City, Apr 1, 2022 / 05:00 am (CNA).
Ahead of World Autism Awareness Day, Pope Francis called for a “culture of inclusion,” which breaks down barriers to ensure that people with disabilities can more fully take part in church communities and civil society.
Pope Francis met with an autism association at the Vatican on Friday and expressed the importance of supporting education, employment, and social opportunities for people with all types of disabilities.
“Disability, in all its forms, represents a challenge and an opportunity to build together a more inclusive and civil society, where family members, teachers and associations like yours are not left alone but are supported,” the pope said in the meeting on April 1.
“For this reason, it is necessary to continue to raise awareness about the various aspects of disability, breaking down prejudices and promoting a culture of inclusion and belonging, based on the dignity of the person.”
The pope underlined that the Church in particular is called to help those with disabilities to “make their voices heard.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a very serious impact especially on the most vulnerable, on the elderly, on people with disabilities and their families. In recent weeks, the tragedy of the war in Ukraine has been added: let’s think of those who are most disadvantaged,” he said.
World Autism Awareness Day takes place each year on April 2. It was established by the United Nations in 2008 to promote the rights and well-being of people who live with learning differences and developmental disabilities.
Pope Francis met with the Italian Autism Foundation, an organization dedicated to research and the creation of social inclusion programs for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Philip, a 20-year-old man living on the autism spectrum, shared his life experiences with the pope in a brief speech at the beginning of the meeting in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall.
After the papal audience, some of the group’s young members with autism volunteered to help bring food to the homeless in St. Peter’s Square.
The pope commended the young people for this “beautiful” gesture, which he said reminded him of the Good Samaritan described in Jesus’ parable in the Gospel of Luke.
“Closeness, compassion, tenderness. With these three features we see the face of God, the heart of God, the style of God,” he said.
Pope Francis pointed to the example of Saint Margaret of Citta de Castello, a 13th century woman born with multiple disabilities who devoted herself to prayer and caring for the poor.
He said that “all those men and women who are more fragile and vulnerable, too often marginalized because they are labeled as different or even useless … are actually a great treasure for society.”
Pope Francis embraces a man in a wheelchair at the Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square on June 10, 2015. / L’Osservatore Romano.
Vatican City, Nov 25, 2021 / 10:00 am (CNA).
In his message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pope Francis said that the Catholic Church needs the participation of everyone, and the disabled must not be excluded from the sacraments.
“As we celebrate your International Day, I would like to speak directly to all of you who live with any condition of disability, to tell you that the Church loves you and needs each of you for the fulfillment of her mission at the service of the Gospel,” the pope said on Nov. 25.
Quoting his 2013 exhortationEvangelii gaudium, he said: “The worst form of discrimination … is the lack of spiritual care.”
“Sometimes, as certain of you have unfortunately experienced, this has taken the form of denying access to the sacraments,” he said in his message.
“The Church’s magisterium is very clear in this area, and recently the Directory for Catechesis stated explicitly that ‘no one can deny the sacraments to persons with disabilities.’”
The theme of Pope Francis’ message for the day is friendship with Jesus, which he said is “an undeserved gift” that all have received and that can help those experiencing discrimination.
Friendship with Christ “redeems us and enables us to perceive differences as a treasure. For Jesus does not call us servants, women and men of lesser dignity, but friends: confidants worthy of knowing all that he has received from the Father,” he said.
Antonietta Pantone, 31, a Rome resident who uses a wheelchair, told journalists it was clear to her from the pope’s message that he considers it important that people with disabilities be part of the Church and not leave the Church.
She shared her personal journey of faith, which included finding a community in the Christian disability group Fede e Luce.
Fede e Luce is the Italian branch of the French association Foi et Lumière (known as Faith and Light in the English-speaking world), which began 50 years ago with a pilgrimage for people with disabilities to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France. The movement has now expanded to five continents.
“I always say: In the eyes of God, we are all equal,” Pantone said, noting that in her journey of faith, friendship has been fundamental.
Friendship with others “demonstrates the closeness of God,” she said.
Pantone also explained how losing physical contact with friends because of the COVID-19 pandemic has been very hard for her and other disabled people, especially her friends who live in residences and not with family.
In his message, Pope Francis addressed the difficulty of the coronavirus outbreak for the disabled.
“I think, for example, of your being forced to stay at home for long periods of time; the difficulty experienced by many students with disabilities in accessing aids to distance learning; the lengthy interruption of social care services in a good number of countries; and many other hardships that you have had to face,” he wrote.
He mentioned in particular those who live in residential facilities, separated from loved ones. “In those places, the virus hit hard and, despite the dedication of caretakers, it has taken all too many lives,” he said.
He also emphasized the importance of confronting these challenges by finding consolation in prayer and friendship with Jesus.
“I would like to speak personally to each of you, and I ask that, if necessary, your family members or those closest to you read my words to you, or convey my appeal,” he said. “I ask you to pray. The Lord listens attentively to the prayers of those who trust in him.”
“Prayer is a mission, a mission accessible to everyone, and I would like to entrust that mission in a particular way to you. There is no one so frail that he or she cannot pray, worship the Lord, give glory to his holy Name, and intercede for the salvation of the world. In the sight of the Almighty, we come to realize that we are all equal,” he stressed.
Pope Francis also noted the continued presence of discrimination, ignorance, and prejudice at all levels of society, assuring people with disabilities that through baptism they are “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!” he said.
At a Nov. 25 press conference, Fr. Alexandre Awi Mello said that the Vatican’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life is trying to do more to improve pastoral care for those with disabilities.
“This message, in recognizing that people with disabilities have their place in the holy faithful People of God, is a great invitation, for us in the dicastery, but above all for parish, diocesan and associative realities to take new paths with pastoral creativity,” Awi Mello said.
“It is a door that opens to think of pastoral care no longer for, but with…”
On Dec. 6, the dicastery will launch a video campaign with the hashtag #IamChurch. In five videos, Catholics with disabilities from different parts of the world will share about their experiences in the Church.
Pantone, who participated in one of the Vatican’s videos, told CNA that she would like to see the Catholic Church do more to develop courses that allow people with all kinds of disabilities to participate in parish life, such as formation courses to become a catechism teacher.
“I still had some ways to study [to become a catechist],” she said, “but it depends on the type of disability, so if another disabled person wants to be a catechist, the Church should give him all the appropriate tools.”
Pantone said that the Church can do a lot for the disabled, but the recently begun Synodal Journey “is already a step forward which the world of disability sees positively.”
Pope Francis said in his message that “having Jesus as a friend is an immense consolation. It can turn each of us into a grateful and joyful disciple, one capable of showing that our frailties are no obstacle to living and proclaiming the Gospel.”
“In fact, a trusting and personal friendship with Jesus can serve as the spiritual key to accepting the limitations that all of us have, and thus to be at peace with them,” he said.
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