A Shepherd's Message
October 24, 2008
Pastoral Message from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo
Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, TX
Thirty years ago this coming November, the bishops of the United States called upon each of us to recognize the face of Christ in persons who have disabilities. The 1978 Pastoral Statement of U.S. Catholic Bishops on People with Disabilities describes how we can and should include people with disabilities into the full life of the Church. The bishops also declared that persons with disabilities have an inalienable right to life, because life itself is a gift from God.
These past thirty years represent, literally, a generation’s worth of hard work. Significant accomplishments have been achieved by this first generation of committed people, some with a personal experience of disability and some without: priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders, catechists, families and individuals. Thank you for your efforts, expertise and optimism. Today, a new generation of people must be recruited and trained so we can continue to advance in this 21st century our Church’s outreach, catechesis, advocacy and support in the work of this important ministry. As Episcopal Moderator for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, in unity with our local disability ministry, I join in calling on all people of good will to find new pathways, develop new partnerships, and bring new vitality to this ministry, ever mindful that we are one flock under the care of a single shepherd.
We know that every baptized Catholic has a right to be educated in their faith and celebrate the Sacraments. The fact that this is true does not by itself make the presence of individuals with disabilities a reality in parish faith formation and Sacrament preparation programs. Current statistics state that some twenty-two percent of any population has a disability. Therefore, the same holds true for every parish. It is a fact that, for various reasons, persons with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in most churches. Yet, gospel values call for us to welcome and include all persons, especially those who are marginalized and most vulnerable. Our social justice teachings testify to the dignity of every child of God, being made in his image and likeness.
In recent years the office of Continuing Christian Education, through the Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, has been a valuable resource for our local Church. Parishes, as well as parishioners, continue to be afforded opportunities to gain knowledge and support relating to this specialized ministry through numerous trainings offered at various locations throughout the year. A disability ministry conference, titled In God’s Image, was established to further promote the sharing of needed information, resources and best practices. The designation of “access parishes”, those parishes who commit to sponsoring programs and events regularly, aimed at welcoming and including persons with disabilities, was the result of intentional plans to implement the pastoral statement. Similarly, faith filled community building events, such as the Advent Gathering, summer festivals, days of prayer, dinner dances, God’s Holy Family weekend retreat, are some of the events individuals with disabilities, their families and friends, are invited to every year.
There are many ways we can expand on the significant efforts already accomplished. It is necessary for each parish to begin by taking an assessment of their property. To ensure individuals with disabilities have access to full parish participation, the removal or renovation of any barriers, on exterior or interior structures, needs to be made. Other barriers, those of the heart, take our prayerful consideration. We each possess a spiritual life that needs to be cared for and nurtured. To extend a Christian welcome to those who seem the least like us, we must put on the eyes of Christ. When we do so, all our efforts will support and enhance the spiritual lives of persons with disabilities, ministering to their Catholic identity, as well as our own.
The more individuals and faith communities learn about various disabilities, the more likely an attitude of acceptance will increase. The disability ministry is one of genuine hospitality and evangelization. It is an ongoing process that calls forth the gifts of every Catholic to be included so that everyone is blessed and the body of Christ is complete. Whether it’s adding a ramp or an automatic door opener for persons using wheelchairs, providing a “buddy” for a student to be included in an existing class, teaching in a multi-sensory approach, hosting support groups, including persons with physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral disabilities, naturally promotes opportunities for conversion. From those who arrange and provide necessary supports to others who observe how challenges are overcome through such collaborative efforts, motivated by Christian love, everyone benefits and grows spiritually.
This year our Holy Father called us to draw near to “Christ Our Hope” during his visit to the United States. Throughout this 30th anniversary year, let us “Live Christ Our Hope,” as we honor the gifts that people with disabilities bring to their faith communities, and rededicate ourselves to ensuring their meaningful participation in all aspects of the Church and society.