Mass for those with Developmental Disabilities
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time – February 11, 2024 

On January 10, 2024, just about one month ago, Vinicio Riva died in a hospital in Italy at age 58.  I wouldn’t think any of you would be familiar with his name, much less his life, save for one chance encounter that brought his face and story into countless numbers of homes throughout the world.

In November, 2013, Vinicio was brought into Saint Peter’s Square in Rome for a Wednesday audience with Pope Francis.  At the conclusion of the audience, as is his custom, the Holy Father visited with the sick and suffering who were present, including Vinicio.  Vinicio suffered from a genetic disorder that can result in skin lesions all over a person’s body and most obviously on a person’s face.

The Holy Father embraced Vinicio while greeting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square in a vivid gesture of love for people suffering from medical conditions. He stopped for several minutes to take Vinicio into his arms and then, taking him by the face, gave him a blessing and kissed him.

In reflecting upon his meeting with Pope Francis, Vinicio shared these words, “The Pope didn’t think about whether to hug me or not. I’m not contagious but he didn’t know it. He did it and that’s it.  He caressed all my face and kissed me.  And while he did it, I only felt love.”

By now, I suspect that not a few of us recall that image, despite the fact that the encounter between the Holy Father and Vinicio occurred over ten years ago.  It’s obvious that Pope Francis understands and has made as his own the example of Jesus in today’s gospel.  More importantly, he understands the mandate that it provides for all of us who seek to embrace the Jesus’ call to discipleship.

The healing of the leper in the very first chapter of Saint Mark’s gospel found Jesus challenging one of the strictest proscriptions in Jewish society as noted in our first reading from the Book of Leviticus.  In engaging the leper, however, Jesus’ miraculous power went well beyond the norms of his society and religion. 

First, in cleansing the man of his leprosy at the very beginning of his public ministry in Mark’s gospel, Jesus boldly revealed God’s great love and respect for every life.  His love and mercy is not contained by religious laws, traditions or social norms but touches every soul because of the simple fact that every soul – every life – is made in the image and likeness of God.

What’s more, despite the fact that the leper was consigned to the margins of his society because of his disability, his faith was strong.  In kneeling before Jesus, the man recognized the very power and presence of God.  He then went on to place his entire trust in Jesus by asserting, “If you wish, you can make me clean.”

In responding to the plea of the leper, which shocked all those who witnessed the exchange, Jesus didn’t see a mere category or someone who was too unclean to approach.  No, he saw a faith-filled, human soul in need, to whom he responded with love and mercy.

Brothers and sisters, the same Jesus who healed the leper in Mark’s gospel comes to cleanse us of all that blinds us to the sacredness and dignity of those we too often reject or marginalize as “lepers” in our world today.  No one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy and compassion.  No one!  All of us are made in the sacred image and likeness of God, challenged to let go of our prejudices, to reach out to one another with love, mercy and respectful generosity to do our part in building the Kingdom of God in our midst. 

This past December, Pope Francis offered his monthly prayer intention for our brothers and sisters with disabilities.  Listen to his words.  “People with disabilities are the most fragile among us.  Some of them suffer rejection rooted in either ignorance or prejudice which then marginalizes them.  Civil institutions need to support their projects through access to education, employment and places where they can express their creativity.  Programs and initiatives are needed that promote their inclusion.  Above all else, big hearts are needed who want to accompany them.  It means changing our mentality a little and opening ourselves to the abilities and talents of these people who are merely differently abled both in society as well as in the life of the Church.” 

As we gather in prayer and acknowledge the dignity and giftedness of every life that God has created, I hope that you realize, dear brothers and sisters whom we honor today, that each of you challenges us to embrace the hope-filled message of today’s gospel in a deeper and more authentic way.  Because of you, our world is brighter – the power of love is stronger – and our ability to see God at work in our world is far more possible than without you!