Ahead of World Autism Awareness Day, Pope Francis called for a “culture of inclusion,” which breaks down barriers to ensure that people with disabilities can more fully take part in church communities and civil society.

Pope Francis met with an autism association at the Vatican on Friday and expressed the importance of supporting education, employment, and social opportunities for people with all types of disabilities.

“Disability, in all its forms, represents a challenge and an opportunity to build together a more inclusive and civil society, where family members, teachers and associations like yours are not left alone but are supported,” the pope said in the meeting on April 1.

“For this reason, it is necessary to continue to raise awareness about the various aspects of disability, breaking down prejudices and promoting a culture of inclusion and belonging, based on the dignity of the person.”

The pope underlined that the Church in particular is called to help those with disabilities to “make their voices heard.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a very serious impact especially on the most vulnerable, on the elderly, on people with disabilities and their families. In recent weeks, the tragedy of the war in Ukraine has been added: let's think of those who are most disadvantaged,” he said.

World Autism Awareness Day takes place each year on April 2. It was established by the United Nations in 2008 to promote the rights and well-being of people who live with learning differences and developmental disabilities.

Pope Francis met with the Italian Autism Foundation, an organization dedicated to research and the creation of social inclusion programs for people with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Philip, a 20-year-old man living on the autism spectrum, shared his life experiences with the pope in a brief speech at the beginning of the meeting in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall.

After the papal audience, some of the group’s young members with autism volunteered to help bring food to the homeless in St. Peter’s Square.

The pope commended the young people for this “beautiful” gesture, which he said reminded him of the Good Samaritan described in Jesus’ parable in the Gospel of Luke.

“Closeness, compassion, tenderness. With these three features we see the face of God, the heart of God, the style of God,” he said.

Pope Francis pointed to the example of Saint Margaret of Citta de Castello, a 13th century woman born with multiple disabilities who devoted herself to prayer and caring for the poor.

He said that “all those men and women who are more fragile and vulnerable, too often marginalized because they are labeled as different or even useless … are actually a great treasure for society.”