The recent visit to Washington, DC and New York by the Holy Father was a wonderful experience of our Catholic family coming together to celebrate all that it means to be Catholic. For children and adults with disabilities, it was an especially rich time to feel a part of the family. The Holy Father and all those planning his trip made it clear that we were not only welcome, but that we belonged. Opportunities were extended for a public witness in Washington and a private meeting in New York. Accommodations were made at both masses so that Catholics with assorted disabilities were able to be present and fully participate. In Washington, a selected group of young (and older) adults with disabilities represented us all as they processed with the gifts to the Holy Father waiting at the altar. To have been one of four groups symbolizing our Catholic community selected to bear these gifts was truly an honor and a recognition of our valued place in the family.
Watching Pope Benedict taking time to bless each child and greet family members and caregivers in the chapel at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York was another graced moment. His words to the children and their families touched our hearts and gave us not only great hope but a sense of purpose: “God has blessed you with life, and with differing talents and gifts. Through these you are able to serve him and society in various ways. While some people’s contributions seem great and others’ more modest, the witness value of our efforts is always a sign of hope for everyone.” He went on to assure us of God’s love and that our lives do indeed hold purpose: “Sometimes it is challenging to find a reason for what appears only as a difficulty to be overcome or even pain to be endured…God’s unconditional love, which bathes every human individual, points to a meaning and purpose for all human life.” He concluded by exhorting us to pray for him and others each day and to “become bearers of [Christ’s] hope and charity for others.”
Prior to the Papal visit, families were calling the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) and the Archdiocese of Washington Office of Ministry for Persons with Disabilities directed by Peg Kolm, expressing their desire to share in the Holy Father’s visit. On April 16 families from Corpus Christi, TX and Chicago, IL joined local families and NCPD board members from Salt Lake City, Boston, and Columbus in a Witness to Pope Benedict. We celebrated liturgy, then made our way to a selected spot on the Holy Father’s procession route from the USCCB building up 4th St., NE to the Basilica, waiting expectantly with thousands of other eager pilgrims. The Ruiz family of Corpus Christi offered the following reflections on the witness: “Being invited was an incredible honor. The Mass was beautiful and I will forever remember the spiritual impact of our family celebrating Mass in D.C. while also waiting for the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI. Our family will be forever blessed to have shared this once in a lifetime experience within a very special community of families from across the nation, remembering with special thoughts always the many in our world like Aaron, Dayton and Larry. They are truly a light and a witness for all to feel the spiritual meaning of “Christ Our Hope.”
As part of our witness, we held a banner expressing our gratitude to Pope Benedict: Holy Father, thank you for valuing and defending our lives. NCPD board member Karen Murray, who directs the Office for People with Disabilities for the Archdiocese of Boston, explains the significance of our message, “As a lifelong Catholic with a disability, it is a highlight of my life to be here at this moment. I am here to express my joy and gratitude for all that the Holy Father has said and done to uphold and proclaim the dignity and worth of every human person. I thank him for his unwavering defense of life and pray that his message will be heard and received by everyone who hears it.”
Catholics with disabilities and their families from throughout the U.S. join with Karen to indeed thank Pope Benedict for his words of affirmation and hope, which have strengthened us and given us a renewed sense of purpose in living our faith as a witness to Christ’s unfailing love.
Janice L. Benton, SFO
National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD)