“The glory of God is the human person fully alive” (St. Irenaeus).
Meet Judy. My friend, Linda, shared this story about her sister, Judy, who lived with Down’s syndrome. When Judy was in a nursing home at the end of her life, Linda would visit her multiple times a day. The two were very close. Every time Linda would come to see her, she would exclaim with joy, “Linda!!” like it was the first time she ever saw her and she was so overjoyed with seeing her. Judy exemplified, and always did, the joy of being a person fully alive and the glory of God.
Sometimes we fail to see a person for whatever reason; and, if they appear different or live with a disability, they can seem to be invisible to others. This failure to see the other as a person with human dignity denies both persons the joy that Judy expressed at seeing her sister. Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer and priest, found great joy in living with persons with disabilities in a L’Arche community for eight years. He wrote a book on his friendship with a young man named Adam. He articulates beautifully the experience of Christ realized in living with those unable to live on their own: persons with disabilities. Nouwen understood the enormous gifts given to those who see the other person and in particular being present with one another. He understood that “the parts we think are unimportant are absolutely essential.”
To be very clear: Persons with disabilities are persons who offer each of us, the church and the world a great gift in who they are. Many years ago, after moving to St. Louis with my family, I wanted to volunteer with persons with disabilities. I had found myself at a young age having many opportunities to do this before I moved and knew it was something I wanted to continue. I contacted the State Hospital in St. Louis. I was taken on a tour of the facilities and at age 16 saw a part of the world I had never experienced before. In the lower level of the state hospital there were people in cages; people in the hallways waiting to be attended to; people strapped into wheelchairs or chairs who were immobile. It was an overwhelming and awful experience. The lack of focus on the person with needs and gifts, made in the image and likeness of God, was absent.
Thank God that those days, for the most part, are over. However, people with disabilities can still remain invisible. Persons with disabilities are persons first. I have been blessed with many friends with disabilities and have learned about God in whose image they are made. Meet Jake, Judy, Adam, Shawn, Mark, Joanne – just a few of those who have changed my life and the lives of so many. For many years, I worked with Special Religious Education. If there is one thing that was certain, SPRED revealed to me the deep sense of faith each one of those persons held close. They taught me more about God than I ever taught them.
Meet Shawn. One time I was driving Shawn, a young man with Down’s syndrome, to a gathering. Because he knew we were going to have Mass he began to sing and pray spontaneously in a way that revealed his love of God and his remarkable sense of the sacredness of the Eucharist. He prayed each part of the liturgy with gestures and reverence. That day I experienced the real presence of Jesus in this communion experience with Shawn.
The Church’s solicitude for persons with disabilities springs from God’s way of acting. Following the principle of the incarnation of the Son of God, who makes himself present in every human situation, the Church recognizes in persons with disabilities the call to faith and to a life that is good and full of meaning (Directory for Catechesis, 269).
Meet Jake; he always inspires me. He has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Jake is very involved in the Church and is on several civic committees. He lives by himself. He is extremely independent, with aids who help him each day. He is patient with me and others as we work to understand what he is saying. His patience is endless, his words enlightening. Many years ago, Jake was hit by a car in his wheelchair. When I went to visit him in the hospital and saw him lying on the bed I was taken aback. I realized what Jake would look like without cerebral palsy. He is handsome, and his body was at peace. Jake incarnates the vulnerability of the Body of Christ. Jake lives the crucified body and makes visible the vulnerable Christ.
“Communities are called not only to take care of the most fragile, but to recognize the presence of Jesus who in a special way manifests himself in them” (Directory for Catechesis, 269).
All of us are disabled in some way. The disability may simply be less visible, but it is there. All of us are vulnerable, weak, in need of help and reliant on one another for the journey. Life is complex, and no life is without its struggles and pain. We accompany one another in this vulnerability and discover together Jesus walking with us. Persons with disabilities incarnate God to us. In essence we are one Body in Christ and, as St. Paul writes in First Corinthians, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ … If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”
“Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1Corinthians 10:17).