No single person is more valuable than another, especially when it comes to those with disabilities, Pope Francis said on Saturday,, insisting that these people have a unique richness, and that discriminating against them is “one of the ugliest things” we can do.
When asked by a young woman named Serena, 25 and in a wheelchair, why some disabled people aren’t able to receive Communion or go to Mass like other members of their parish, the Pope said the question touches on “one of the ugliest things among us: discrimination. It’s a very ugly thing.”
To say that “you aren’t like me, you go over there” or that it’s not possible to receive catechesis because “this parish is for those who are the same, without differences,” is one of the worst things that can happen.
Francis, who spoke off-the-cuff, said that if a priest does this to someone, he must “convert,” because having diversity doesn’t mean someone “with five senses that function well is better than one who is blind and deaf. No, that’s not true.”
“We all have the same ability to grow, to go forward, to love the Lord, to do good things, to understand Christian doctrine. We all have the same capacity to receive the sacraments.”
While it’s true that a good formation is needed if someone wants to receive the Eucharist, there ought to be a way for those with disabilities to receive the same preparation as everyone else, he said.
For example, if a person is deaf, there must be “the opportunity in that parish to prepare yourself with sign language. It’s important.”
Pope Francis spoke to several hundred disabled persons and their caregivers June 11 as part of a conference organized by the Department of Catechesis for Disabled Persons of the Italian National Office of Catechesis in honor of the 25th anniversary of their founding.
The conference, titled “…and you will always eat at my table!”, coincided with the June 10-12 Jubilee for the Sick and Disabled currently taking place as part of the wider Jubilee of Mercy.
Francis told participants that a world in which everyone is the same “would be boring,” and that diversity is a gift. He tossed his prepared text aside, jesting that “as we all know, to read a speech is also a bit boring, right?”
He then took three questions from people in the audience. The first was from a woman named Lavinia, who spoke about the fear that often comes when associating with people who have disabilities.
In his response, the Pope stressed that “we are all different. There is not one equal to the other,” and that the fear of meeting a person who is different from us comes because it presents us with a challenge.
“It’s a challenge. It's more comfortable to stay still, to ignore diversity and pretend that we’re all equal,” he said, noting that while every challenge brings about some sort of fear, diversity “is a richness,” because each person is able to give something to the other.
“I have something, you have another, and together we have something bigger and more beautiful. This is how we go forward.”
Francis admitted that while some differences among individuals have painful causes rooted in illness, these also enrich, because they challenge us and help us to overcome our fears.
“We should never be afraid of diversity,” he said, explaining that in order for this to happen we must learn how to connect with the things that we have in common. A concrete gesture that can get us started on this path, he said, is “extending the hand.”
“When I extend my hand, I put in common what I have and what you have. If someone extends their hand sincerely, I give you what is mine and you give me what is yours.”
Pope Francis also took a question from a priest, Fr. Luigi, who is in charge of catechesis in a parish in the south of Rome, on how to teach parish communities to welcome and listen to everyone who comes to them.
In his answer, Francis stressed the importance of welcoming everyone, without exception. If a priest doesn’t do this, “what advice would the Pope give?” he asked, saying the answer would be to “Please, close the doors of the parish – either everyone, or no one!”
The role of the priest, assisted by the laity and catechists, is to ensure that everyone truly understands the faith, understands love and how to get along, even amid differences, he said.
He also stressed the importance of what he called “the pastoral of the ears,” meaning to listen. While the Church does a lot of good things in her pastoral work, this is one thing everyone, but especially priests, “must do more.”
Even though the stories might get old, it’s not the same person telling them, he said, adding that “the Lord is in the heart of every person, and you must have the patience to listen, to welcome and to listen to everyone.”
In his answer to the third question, posed by Serena, the Pope noted how disabled people are frequently discriminated against, even with “offensive words,” and insisted that this shouldn’t happen.
While some parish priests might say they are denying catechesis or the necessary formation to receive the sacraments to a disabled people because they aren’t able to understand, this is no excuse, Francis said.
“Each one of us has a different way of understanding things…but each of us has the ability to know God,” he said, and pointed to St. Pius X’s decision in 1910 to allow children aged 7 and older to receive Holy Communion.
“Many were scandalized” by the decision, saying that children weren’t able to understand the mystery of the sacrament, Francis observed. However, St. Pius X “did something different, an equality, because he knew that children understood in a different way.”
Each person has their own unique richness that is different from everyone else’s, he said, but noted that in the Mass and in the sacraments, everyone is equal because we all have Christ and we all have the same mother, Mary.
Pope Francis then thanked those present for coming, and asked for prayers. He led the group in reciting the Hail Mary before spending several minutes greeting the elderly and disabled in the first few rows of the auditorium.