Pope John Paul II on the Dignity of Mentally Disabled Persons

H. Humphrey grandchild Victoria Solomonson (1960-2010)

We have learned from the late Holy Father that a spirituality of communion “means an ability to think of our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me.’ This makes us able to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship. A spirituality of communion implies also the ability to see what is positive in others, to welcome it and prize it as a gift from God: not only as a gift for the brother or sister who has received it directly, but also as a ‘gift for me. A spirituality of communion means, finally, to know how to ‘make room for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens.'”§ 43 And explicitly “we need to remember that no one can be excluded from our love, since ‘through his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every person’.” §49

Not to my surprise I discovered that near the end of his life John Paul gave a major speech to the participants in the International Symposium on The Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person (find it here). I was reading the assignment that I made for the Honors Service Learning course at UST. I asked them to read a book by my former teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, co-written with Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World (InterVarsity ISBN 9780830834525). Jean Vanier the founder of L’Arche, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities experience life together as human beings, writes an introductory essay on his experience of community. He says a key text for him is 1 Cor 12 that the weakest members of the body need to be honored. Yet he says society tries to hide them away or get rid of them. The answer is not, he says, finding them more autonomy, but it “comes back to belonging.” It takes time to get to know each other. Jean Vanier says that his communities spend time eating together, praying together, and celebrating together. By celebrating he means “to laugh, to fool around, to have fun, and to give thanks together for life.” He explains how much he has received from these communities. He then quotes John Paul’s statement, a very prophetic statement in this speech:

There is no doubt that in revealing the fundamental frailty of the human condition, the disabled person becomes an expression of the tragedy of pain. In this world of ours that approves hedonism and is charmed by ephemeral and deceptive beauty, the difficulties of the disabled are often perceived as a shame or a provocation and their problems as burdens to be removed or resolved as quickly as possible. Disabled people are, instead, living icons of the crucified Son. They reveal the mysterious beauty of the One who emptied himself for our sake and made himself obedient unto death. They show us, over and above all appearances, that the ultimate foundation of human existence is Jesus Christ. It is said, justifiably so, that disabled people are humanity’s privileged witnesses. They can teach everyone about the love that saves us; they can become heralds of a new world, no longer dominated by force, violence and aggression, but by love, solidarity and acceptance, a new world transfigured by the light of Christ, the Son of God who became incarnate, who was crucified and rose for us.

Vanier concludes from his experience, and the wisdom of St Paul and John Paul II, that  “We have to hear Jesus knocking at the door and then open the door and let him come in to be our friend. To become of Jesus is to become a friend of the excluded. As we learn to be a friend of the excluded, we enter into this amazing relationship that is friendship with God.”.

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