The sick and disabled have always held a special place in Pope Francis’ heart, and have been the recipients of some of his most tender acts as Bishop of Rome. Now they will take on the prominent roles at a Mass for the Year of Mercy at the Vatican.
Thousands of sick and disabled persons will journey to Rome with their families and caregivers this week for a special jubilee in their honor, culminating with a June 12 Mass said by Pope Francis in which the sick and disabled will conduct all of the readings, do the singing, and serve at the altar.
“I would like to highlight the importance of this jubilee of the sick and disabled because we know that many times in our ceremonies a small group of them are present, but in this opportunity they will be the protagonists,” Archbishop Jose Octavio Ruiz Arenas said June 9.
Secretary of Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Archbishop Ruiz spoke to journalists during the presentation of the activities for the June 10-12 Jubilee for Sick and Disabled Persons.
“We know that all sick and disabled people suffer, normally a lot. And at times also due to the indifference of those beside them,” the archbishop said, explaining that the jubilee is a time to remember all that the Church does and has done for people in this category throughout history.
He was joined in the presentation by the president of the council, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, who gave an overview of the jubilee activities, the climax of which is Sunday’s Mass with the Pope.
So far 20,000 sick and disabled persons and their caregivers have registered for jubilee events, and 50,000 tickets have already been printed for the Pope’s Mass, which is set to begin at 10:30 a.m. in St. Peter’s Square.
Altar servers for the liturgy will include several youths with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities; a German deacon who is deaf will assist the celebrants.
The first reading will be proclaimed by a disabled person in Spanish, while the day’s second reading will be done in English by a blind girl, who will read aloud from Braille.
The Gospel will be read, and for the first time dramatized by a group of intellectually disabled people, so that the text will be more easily understood by pilgrims with mental and intellectual disabilities who learn better through visual means.
Each of the readings, including the Gospel, will be translated into International Sign Language for the deaf pilgrims present, while the intentions of the faithful will be translated into sign languages specific to individual nations.
One of the sign language interpreters present at Thursday’s presentation of the jubilee explained to journalists that just as in spoken languages, there are different sign languages from country to country, as well as different dialects.
However, she noted that the only sign word that’s the same across the board in every variation is “Jesus.”
Before Mass begins Sunday, pilgrims already in St. Peter’s Square will participate in a 9 a.m. event titled “When I am weak I am strong,” featuring testimonies from various disabled individuals, including a couple affected by a degenerative neurological illness and a woman named Maria Grazia Fiore, who has two disabled children.
Enrico Petrillo, the husband of Chiara Corbella, who died at age 28 after choosing to reject treatment and save her unborn baby after a tumor was discovered during their third pregnancy, will also speak.
A well-known Italian image called “Our Lady Health of the Sick” will also be displayed during the Mass.
Normally residing in the church of St. Mary Magdalene in Rome’s Campo Marzio neighborhood, the painting dates back to the 16th century and was given to the church by a nobleman in 1619 after he was miraculously healed from an illness when he prayed in front of the image.
The jubilee will kick off Friday with a round of catechesis given by blind and deaf Redemptorist priest Fr. Ciryl Axelrod, as well as a walking pilgrimage from Castel Sant’Angelo to the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica.
On Saturday pilgrims will be able to attend another catechesis titled “Mercy, source of joy” in different churches in the historical center of Rome. In the evening they will participate in a special welcome ceremony titled “Over the limit” in the gardens of Castel Sant’Angelo, which sits on the other end of Via della Conciliazione, the main road leading up to St. Peter’s Basilica.
During the event, sick and disabled pilgrims will be serenaded by the official band of the Italian police force, called the Carabinieri, and they will also be able to perform with professional singers and dancers. Two songs will also be performed in sign language
As of 2 p.m. Saturday, seven “Tents of Mercy” will be set up where various pastoral organizations and volunteer associations such as U.N.I.T.A.L.S.I., Onlus, the Sant’Egidio Community, and the Health Ministry of the Italian Bishops Conference will be available to share their experiences with the world of illness and disability.
As a concrete sign of mercy for the less fortunate, the Med Tag Foundation will set up four “Health Points” Friday afternoon, where Rome’s homeless can come to receive services free of charge.
Roughly 350 volunteers, including women religious, Red Cross nurses, military staff and healthcare workers, will offer free examinations to some 700 homeless individuals in the fields of general medicine, dermatology, oncology, pediatrics, and gynecology. Vaccines for pneumonia will also be available, as well as PAP tests for women.
Archbishop Ruiz in his comments to journalists stressed that “we can't forget that the caring for the sick is one of the corporal works of mercy to which we all are called.”
“It’s a reality that underlines what the Pope frequently tells us: that we must touch the flesh of Christ - in these sick people we can find the place to truly touch the flesh of the Lord.”
Mercy, he said, can’t be reduced to a deep feeling that moves us, but instead “mercy must be active, something concrete.”
One concrete sign of mercy is precisely the Jubilee for sick and disabled persons, he said, explaining that the event provides each person with the opportunity to put the Holy Year of Mercy’s motto into action, and be “merciful like the Father.”
“So it will be a strong moment in this jubilee and an opportunity that can help many sick people to have a bit of hope and joy.”