Pope Francis has invited the whole Church in December to pray that “people with disabilities may be the centre of attention in our societies”. This is a very fitting prayer intention as we start Advent – that wonderful season of prayer, preparation and reconciliation before the coming of Christ, the Prince of Peace, at Christmas.
It is also appropriate that the First Sunday of Advent, 3 December, is the International Day of People with Disability. A United Nations day it might be, but it’s also a very good opportunity for us to look at how we value people with disabilities in our church communities.
For a special ‘Catholic News’ podcast, that you can listen to below, Cristina Gangemi, a highly experienced disability advisor who has long worked to make the Church a more inclusive, valuing and understanding place, joins us to talk about the day but also to discuss the wider issues:
“The day seeks to understand issues of disability, mobility, dignity, rights and wellbeing of people with disabilities, and in the Church, really, that’s been a focus for hundreds of years. But somehow, we tend to miss its importance, and rather than recognise the belonging of people with disabilities, we tend to overlook their needs. So it’s a very important day, because each year it reminds us to live our teaching regarding value and dignity, rights and access. It’s not something new for the Church, but it does remind us why it’s so important to value people of all experiences.”
Cristina uses a word ‘valuability’, a positive word that shifts the focus from vulnerability, and she has four P-words that can help us value people with disabilities:
“I argue against the overuse of the term vulnerability. All people are different. One of the things that makes us equal is the fact that we’re all different. I find it very challenging to think of a person who experiences disability only as being vulnerable. That means they’re open to being injured, open to being left out… But that doesn’t characterise who they are. My experience of people with disabilities has always been people of immense value. If we’re going to live a ‘valuability’ – a value of other people, rather than a vulnerability, noticing how they’re injured, we need to look at four ‘P’s.”
So what are they?
“To begin with, you must never ‘presume’ anything about anybody. Never presume that another person is weak. You have to always be ‘present’ to the person you have before you, and that means recognising their value from the very outset of your encounter with them.
“Then we have to recognise that each person has a ‘purpose’. If somebody is in church with you has a disability, there is a reason that they’re there – they belong, they have a purpose. Then the last is ‘patience’, we have to be patient with one another.”
Cristina is joined by Sean, a man who faces challenges but never fails to make himself heard and has a place for the Church and for God in his heart. But does he feel a valued part of the Catholic community?
“I do now. Although in my early life people would say ‘I don’t want to stay with you’. Some people who did not understand would say ‘disabled people should not go where they go’ and so I did not go to church. But now I go to the church for God. He made me like this. I had not done anything wrong, so why couldn’t I go to church?
“I am happy now. Some people thought my disability was ‘catching’. But it’s not. I don’t feel I have to say sorry for being in church because I’m there to see God.”
Ten years ago, Sean studied for and was awarded the Catholic Certificate of Religious Studies. He loves theology and makes an important contribution to the Church. So is Cristina proud of Sean’s achievements?
“It’s always very rewarding for me, but not because I’m amazed or surprised that Sean’s able to do such theological and catechetical work because of his disability. But I’m always amazed by the fact that we’re amazed. When you look at Jesus, there was nobody he turned away.
“We seem to see Jesus as somebody that restored people to what we think a body should be. But actually, Jesus met everybody, responded to them, listened to their story and entered into that unrepeatable experience as their spirit met his. Some listened to what he had to say and some turned away. But the most important thing is that he knocked down those barriers… That’s what I gained from the example of Sean. He ministered to me. He shared his own spirit and his own belief in God with me.”
A final word from Cristina on what we can do this Advent to recognise that ‘valuability’, so we can learn with and from people with disabilities:
“Use the four Ps throughout Advent. Ask yourself: What’s the purpose of us going to church, of being a community of people held in the love of God? How are we each present to one another? And who’s present? Ask that question.
“Don’t presume that there’s nobody with a disability in your community. And if they’re not present in your community, find them and make sure that they are present. And then just show patience and love so that the value of each person can be expressed.”
You can find out more about Cristina Gangemi and her work by visiting the Kairos Forum website.