By Cardinal Justin Rigali

During this Respect Life Month, we have the opportunity to reflect on the ministry to our brothers and sisters with disabilities.

“Life is no less precious”
Cardinal Terence Cooke, Archbishop of New York from 1968 to 1983, died at the comparatively young age of 62. He had quietly battled leukemia for many years, but continued to work so hard that few knew of this reality. Finally, for the last two months of his life he was in very great pain, and it was announced that he was dying. He used the cross of suffering as a powerful pulpit, in order to preach one last sermon from his bed of pain. He sought to underline the dignity of each person, regardless of the circumstances of that person’s life.

In a letter that he asked to be read in all the churches of the Archdiocese of New York on the Sunday after his death, he wrote: “The ‘gift of life,’ God’s special gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, human life gains extra splendor as it requires our special care, concern and reverence. It is in and through the weakest of human vessels that the Lord continues to reveal the power of His love.”

While we respect, defend and honor the life of the body, we do not make the body itself an absolute value. We take advantage of the marvels of medical science to heal the sick, when this is possible, and to share in the advances made in the medical field. However, this should never be confused with a “cult of perfection” of the body, which views anything or anyone less than physically perfect as not having the right to our love and care.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “(Christian morality) rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships” (CCC, 2289).

One of the most tragic symptoms of a society which has lost its way is the pursuit of what is viewed as absolute physical perfection. In the century which has just passed, the concept of breeding only healthy and physically perfect inspaniduals was tragically used by those Nazi philosophies which sought to breed “perfect” inspaniduals and to put to death those with physical and mental disabilities, as if they were “littering” society.

The human condition
There is a great mystery to human sickness, suffering and the mental and physical challenges which some of our brothers and sisters live with. We know that Jesus asks all of us to join our sufferings to His, so that we may participate in the mystery of His saving Death and Resurrection. While those with physical and developmental challenges may be more obvious when they are in our midst, this certainly does not mean that they are the only ones with challenges and crosses. All of us, in our inmost hearts, know the particular challenges and crosses that are ours.

In speaking of physical challenges, Jesus mysteriously tells us that they can be means by which “the works of God might be made visible” (John 9:3). Do physical or mental disabilities in themselves actually give glory to God or “show forth His works?” The answer is, of course, no; in themselves they do not give glory to God. However, we also know that many unexpected blessings, that could not have been anticipated come through physical and mental challenges.

Many parents with children with special needs relate that their other children are less selfish, and more generous and loving than many of their generation, precisely because of the presence of this special-needs brother or sister. These realities, and the often heroic love that the parents of special needs children give, preach many silent sermons to those around them. How can we ever sufficiently extol this magnificent parental love?

Many people with physical challenges have accomplished great things, which they would have not accomplished if not for those very challenges. Just as celibacy, embraced “for the sake of the kingdom,” is a witness to another world in the midst of our physical world, so various disabilities can be a reminder to us of the transitory nature of what we might call “physical perfection” and of the need to live according to deeper realities.

Persons with disabilities in the life of the Church
Since all of us actually have some kind of “disability,” even if it is not physical or visible, we are all a part of the life of the Church with our disabilities! However, in a more specific way, the Church encourages us to integrate persons with more visible disabilities into her life.

Pope Benedict XVI has said: “I invite each of you to work harder at the integration of persons with disabilities into society, into the world of work and into the Christian community, as I remind you that every human life deserves respect and must be protected from its conception to its natural end. I assure my support and my prayers to all those who are already dedicated to this immense task” (Angelus Message, 4 December 2005).

I am so pleased that here in our own Archdiocese we have a Department of Pastoral Care of Persons with Disabilities, which oversees and encourages this participation. They work very hard to fulfill our mission to those with disabilities. We also do not want to forget the many works of charity and outreach that are present in the Archdiocese, many of which have been functioning for many, many years, long before this became a widely-known cause.

I give thanks for the various programs and facilities operating under the auspices of our own Catholic Social Services’ Developmental Programs spanision, which operates residential and community-based programs for adults and children who are developmentally disabled, among which are: spanine Providence Village in Springfield, Delaware County, which provides an adult training facility, a work activity center and a community employment program for residents, as well as inspaniduals residing in the community; Don Guanella School, also in Springfield, which provides residential and rehabilitative services for developmentally disabled boys; the Cardinal Krol Center, which provides the same services for young men; St. Edmond’s Home for Children, where an entire range of services are provided, including physical, speech, recreational and music therapy for children with physical disabilities.

As part of our Priest Ongoing Formation Program, there will be a workshop in November for priests, entitled: “Persons with Disabilities in the life of the Church: The Unique and Powerful Role of the Priest.” Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior will be the Guest Speaker, Sister Kathleen Schipani, I.H.M., will be the Panel Facilitator. Among those on the panel will be a priest of our Archdiocese, who is blind; a person with cerebral palsy; a parent of a child with autism; a parent of a child with Down’s Syndrome and a resident of the Cardinal Krol Center.

I hope that all of us, each one according to his or her vocation in life, will be ever more aware of the presence in our community of persons with disabilities and continue to make every effort to fully integrate them into the life of the Church. In doing so, we affirm a very basic principle concerning the dignity of each inspanidual and we enrich ourselves and the Church in the process.

14 October 2010