Disabilities Mass – 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 12, 2023
Many of you have heard me reflect upon my visit to the Diocese of Sunyani in Ghana, Africa, on numerous occasions during the past six months. Today’s celebration of this annual Mass for those with physical and developmental disabilities is one more opportunity for me to do so.
One of the highlights of that visit was my participation in an annual weekend long spiritual festival commemorating the Assumption of our Blessed Mother Mary. Over 15,000 people gathered at a remote grotto for three days to pray, to learn about their faith and to celebrate their shared belief in Jesus Christ. For all of the beauty of this experience, I was struck by the great sacrifice that it demanded from those who participated in its numerous events. Many journeyed miles on foot to be there. The terrain was rugged and challenging. The days were hot and the nights could be quite cool. Participants slept on the ground in the open air, building fires to prepare their food and to keep warm when the sun went down.
What touched me most, however, were those with obvious disabilities who were brought by their families to this festival. Apart from a ramp that offered access to the pavilion where the altar for Mass was located, the grotto provided few accommodations or comforts for any of the participants in the festival, let alone individuals with special needs. Yet, far from being a burden to those who brought them, the presence of those with disabilities was welcomed and their participation was quite obviously a blessing, not just for them but particularly to all who gathered with them. The respect, love and acceptance that was extended to these cherished brothers and sisters was palpable. They were one with everyone else!
I could not help but think of this experience when I read Pope Francis’ remarks that were shared in early December of this past year at a gathering in Rome to mark the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. “Making churches accessible and services understandable is important, but having wheelchair ramps and sign-language interpreters is not enough for a parish to call itself inclusive,” Pope Francis said. The church also must meet people’s needs for “belonging, relating to others and cultivating their spiritual lives so they experience the fullness and blessing of the Lord” for the “unique and marvelous gift” that they are, the pope told a gathering of those with disabilities.
In this morning’s gospel passage from Saint Matthew, Jesus invites us to recognize the unique blessing of our relationships one with another and the mirror that they become for our experience of God. By our compassion and caring for others, by our ethical and moral convictions, by our sense of awareness and gratitude for all that God has done for us, we engage God’s work of discipleship.
Yet, it’s fair to say that in Saint Matthew’s gospel, there is a tension present regarding how we authentically embrace the work of God. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day believed that they fulfilled that task by meticulously keeping the letter of the Law. For Jesus, however, it’s not that simple. While the Law was a starting point, it was only that.
For Jesus, the heart of discipleship is not discovered in the minimum we do. No, it’s rooted in the recognition of our radical need for God. None of us can save ourselves! Nor are we saved by a cheap grace – but by a love which took Jesus to the cross and cost him his life. To be authentic disciples, then, we have to live our faith with integrity – and not merely give it lip service by following the letter of the law – thou shall not kill, or steal or commit adultery – while missing its spirit altogether! We’re called to live our faith in such a way that we respect and reverence the lives of one another in the same way that God responds to us.
The perfect example of what Jesus is calling all of us to embrace comes from today’s gospel, with little need for editorializing. “If you bring your gift to the altar and recall that your brother has something against you, go first to be reconciled and only then bring your gift.”
This life-giving yet challenging teaching is reflected in our first reading today from the Old Testament book of Sirach. Before each of us are choices for “life and death, good and evil.” Choose life, the prophet asserts. For it is in every life – our own and that of others – that the imprint of the Creator is found.
Pope Francis concluded his remarks for the International Day for Persons with Disabilities with these challenging words, “In the Church – with regard to the disabled – there can be no us and them, but a single us, with Jesus Christ at the center, where each person brings his or her own gifts and limitations. This awareness, founded on the fact that we are all part of the same vulnerable humanity assumed and sanctified by Christ, eliminates arbitrary distinctions and opens the door to the participation of each baptized member in the life of the Church.”
Thank God that we belong to a Church that reminds us that God’s criteria for fitting in is vastly different from the world’s. And thank God for you, our cherished brothers and sisters with disabilities, who give us a glimpse of what it truly means to fulfill the gospel mandate of Jesus to love generously and to walk together in peace as brothers and sisters.