A leading expert on faith and disabilities has said that people with disabilities are an essential aspect of the Church's life and mission, and that parishes which exclude them are “incomplete.” “It's important to say from the very beginning that any parish that doesn't have people with disabilities in it, is an incomplete body of Christ...their full capacity to evangelize and catechize is impoverished,” Cristina Gangemi told CNA Oct. 18.
Gangemi is co-director of The Kairos Forum, and an expert in pastoral care for people with intellectual disabilities. She has partnered with the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to host a conference on catechesis for people with disabilities. The conference, titled “Catechesis and Persons with Disabilities: A Necessary Engagement in the Daily Pastoral Life of the Church,” will take place Oct. 20-22 at the Pontifical Urbanianum University in Rome.
Gangemi told CNA that “to have everybody the same doesn't celebrate the beauty of diversity, because one thing that we're all the same in, one true moment of equality, is that we're all different.” But, she said, when people with disabilities participate in parish life, it is sometimes “presumed by the priest…that they don't have the learning capacity to be able to be prepared for First Communion or the Sacraments.”
While people with disabilities are often described as having “learning difficulties,” Gangemi said the reality is actually the reverse: “the problem is that there are lots of teaching difficulties.” She noted that many resources used in catechetical preparation for the reception of the sacraments are not adapted to the learning styles of intellectually disabled people, who frequently learn best through action, drama, art and music. “So we've got this paradox. You've got people with disabilities who long to receive the sacraments, who from the moment of their conception are touched by God's grace, and so therefore are called to the sacraments, and then you've got this problem in parish structures where nobody really knows how to make all their programs accessible.”
Because people with disabilities often struggle to learn using traditional methods, “the presumption is they can't be catechized.” The heart of catechesis and evangelization is essentially “the echoing down of faith from one generation to another, from one person to another in the parish,” she said. “And as for evangelization, everybody, no matter who they are, holds the capacity to be an agent of evangelization.”
Pointing to another example, Gangemi recalled the story of a 50-year-old man with disabilities at a parish in London, who at every Mass, during the consecration or when people went up for Communion, would extend his hand toward the altar and make unintelligible sounds. Typically the man's caretakers would tell him to be quiet and not to make noise. However, one day as the man was watching others receive Communion, he again reached out his hand and said, “Why not me?”
“This reaching out for 40-45 years, watching everybody go up to Communion and come back again, was his longing for the Eucharist,” Gangemi said. “And if you think of what Jesus did and what Jesus said, he made a special focus on people who are left out.” “His lament, 'why not me?' was no different than the psalmists and the people that were exiled. So I think that's got to stop, my hope is that that will stop, she said.”
In 2016, Pope Francis told an Italian group that excluding anyone from parish life because of a disability is wrong, stressing that it is better to “close the door” of a parish than to exclude the disabled.
Disability catechesis, Gangemi said, is not simply about making sure people with disabilities have access to the Sacraments, but is more broadly focused on “how can we ensure that every single person, born and baptized, can be an agent of evangelization and can have the faith echoed down to them so that they can echo down the faith to others.” “People with disabilities who become active in the Church through their own creative skills then become people that can evangelize to others and call others to salvation,” she said.
The catechetical conference was proposed in 2016 by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Council for the New Evangelization, and approved personally by Pope Francis. Gangemi, who has a number of family members with disabilities, was invited to help organize the event because of previous Vatican conferences on disabilities she’d arranged. So far, 420 people who work in catechesis have signed up, coming from professions and countries all over the world.
Archbishop Fisichella, Baroness Sheila Hollins of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, and representatives from dioceses around the world will present methods for the catechesis of disabled people. Participants will also have an audience with Pope Francis on day two of the event, demonstrating the Pope's keen interest in the topic.
In her comments to CNA, Gangemi called the conference “historic,” since it is among the first global events to address the topic of catechizing those with intellectual disabilities. Gangemi is also partnering with the Archdiocese of Newark's office for Pastoral Ministry for Persons with Disabilities, to launch a parish training course on catechesis for the disabled.
The goal, she said, is to engage people so as to “try to make a shift in the way we see and think” about disability, “because the Catholic Church teaches that all life is gift.” “That's our starting point: all life is gift,” she said, and voiced her hope that the conference would be “the beginning, and that those of us who live now will leave a legacy for those to come, that it won't die.”