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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Subject: Joy of Love Mini-Series: What Pope Francis asks us to do about persons with special needs

Subject: Joy of Love Mini-Series: What Pope Francis asks us to do about persons with special needs

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What Pope Francis asks us to do about persons with special needs...with a surprise twist!
In #47, the pope re-emphasizes an earlier Synod statement about people with special needs: the bishops, he says, called attention to:

"[F]amilies of persons with special needs, where the unexpected challenge of dealing with a disability can upset a family’s equilibrium, desires and expectations… Families who lovingly accept the difficult trial of a child with special needs are greatly to be admired. They render the Church and society an invaluable witness of faithfulness to the gift of life. In these situations, the family can discover, together with the Christian community, new approaches, new ways of acting, a different way of understanding and identifying with others, by welcoming and caring for the mystery of the frailty of human life. People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity…"

In quoting the bishops’ statement, Pope Francis is showing his empathy for families facing challenges, and there is no one who will argue that the presence of a child or other family member with special needs presents tremendous challenges—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

But then comes the surprise twist: immediately after quoting the bishops’ statement, the pope makes an unexpected parallel: “Here I would stress that dedication and concern shown to migrants and to persons with special needs alike is a sign of the Spirit. Both situations are paradigmatic: they serve as a test of our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities.”

What was that? People with special needs… and migrants? They would seem to have little to do with each other, at least on the surface.

But go beneath the surface and they do. Migrants represent the world’s special needs children: they too present challenges but are worthy of our love and attention. They too are a witness to the gift of life, and just as no family can turn away a member with special needs, so can the family of the Church, the community of faith, refuse to turn away these members with their own special needs.

Reaching Out to the Vulnerable
Jeannette de Beauvoir

Novelist Phyllis McGinley once wrote that the reason the saints are saints is because they actually do what the Gospel calls us to do. They take it literally. Pope Francis takes it literally, too, and here he says that answering the Gospel’s call means doing something about the most vulnerable people in the world. As long as we think of those who are different from us as the “other,” we’ll never be answering the Gospel’s call.

I can relate to both of these categories of vulnerable people. I moved to America from my native France when I was in my early twenties. I cannot compare my journey to that of today’s migrants: I came out of choice, not necessity. But even in that choice I felt fear, the uncertainty of acceptance, the strangeness of a different language and culture; and those feelings of alienation are obviously compounded for those who are forced today to flee their countries through no choice of their own. Too often they knock on doors that are immediately closed in their faces. Is this what the Gospel calls us to do?

I had a sister who died when she was three months old. She had hydrocephalus, and in the 1950s there wasn’t very much that could be done for her. If she had lived, she would have been profoundly mentally retarded. I’ve seen photographs of her: she looked different. I have no doubt that, had she become an adult, people would have been frightened of her, avoided her, perhaps made fun of her. Is that what the Gospel calls us to do?

Pope Francis says no! As part of the Year of Mercy, on June 12th the Church celebrates a special jubilee for persons with disabilities. In writing about it, Jean Vanier noted that “a society that honors only the powerful, the clever, and the winners necessarily belittles the weak.”

Are we doing it right? If you take the Gospel literally, then you understand that it turns everything that people think—about the world, about wealth, about power, and about what’s important—completely on its head. Others say blessed are the celebrities; we say blessed are the meek. Others say if you’re rich it’s a sign that God loves you; we say it is the poor who are the presence of Jesus among us. Others say to hang out with people who are like you; we say that the lame, the crippled, and the vulnerable have a place at our table.

Blessed James Alberione, co-founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, counseled that we should “always start with the manger.” A baby was born in that manger to a young couple who almost immediately was forced by circumstances into exile. This is where Jesus’ life began, as a vulnerable migrant child. If we start with the manger, then we cannot close our eyes to what happened immediately after it.

How can you take up this challenge, articulated in the Gospels and reiterated by Pope Francis? How can you reach out to those with special needs, those in exile, those who are refugees? Find one single thing, today, right now, that you can do: because that’s the way the world is changed—one step at a time.

Jeannette de Beauvoir studied Church history and liturgics at Yale Divinity School and Boston University and is a marketing copywriter for Pauline Books & Media.

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