What does it mean to be for life? At its core, it means recognizing every human being for what he or she is: the conscious creation of God, who consciously brought this human being into being.
Whatever the condition of a person, young or old, healthy or sick, law-abiding or criminal, as disciples of Jesus we are called to see Jesus himself in that person and respond to him or her in an appropriate way Imago Dei. We must see every human being as an actual or potential member of the body of Christ, and see everyone as essential to that body, as one of “us” and never as some anonymous alien “them.”
As parents of a disabled person, my husband and I have experienced the trauma of an unexpected prenatal diagnosis, the subsequent pressure to fear the new life inside me as something, and even the reassurance first hand of a doctor who, when he is with her birth would not be treated for medical problems related to her disability. He definitely saw our baby as one of “them” and openly disregarded our insistence that she be treated as one of “us”. That was over 23 years ago and our daughter Rachel is an energetic, happy young adult who is able to switch any screen interface from blank screen to music video in less than five seconds. She is also prone to serial hugs, turning off all lights in empty or occupied rooms, and singing something different than what the choir sings during mass.
Our life with Rachel has given us many opportunities to reflect on what it means for the church to recognize people with disabilities as members of the body of Christ and to work to literally bring them into our life as a church. We have learned the difference it makes when people no longer see this work as something “nice” for disabled people and their families, but see it as necessary for the flourishing of the body of Christ itself; If we stop seeing the placement of people with special needs as something we do for them because they want to be with us, but something we do because we want them to be with us – we want them “We” are not alien “you.” As Michele Chronister, who works with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, puts it, “Accessibility is less about serving people with disabilities and more about recognizing that… that we need the gifts that God has given them in order for the church to really thrive.” The Church is simply incomplete in that it does not include people with disabilities in its life.
My husband and I sometimes reflect that our Rachel was our main “educator” – she taught us so much more about life than we taught her. Under her guidance we have learned that fulfillment is not in what we do but in who we are, not in what we achieve but in loving and being loved. Achievements are great, but they are not the meaning of life. My husband and I might have known that intellectually, but I don’t think we would know it in our hearts the way we do without Rachel. Including people like Rachel means that this form of formation can extend beyond the domestic church to the church as a whole. I think it is providential that has enabled us to learn so much about how to include people with disabilities at the same time as we move from Christianity into a new apostolic age: we are entering a time when where there will be far fewer Christian achievements celebrated in culture. We will have to measure our success by the faithfulness of our discipleship, not by the recognition of our fellow citizens.
Nowhere is the recalibration of “success” more important than in our schools. Here in Denver, this recalibration has been made explicit in the School of the Lord’s Service, a guiding framework adopted by the Archdiocese in 2020.”[T]The measure of success,” it says, “lies in being who one is meant to be: a son or daughter of the Father, open to truth, aspiring to good, transformed by beauty, and contributing to eternal life created by God. While this may result in material success, it is not the primary goal of education in a Catholic school.” It is no coincidence that our Archdiocese has simultaneously articulated this recalibration of educational success while taking significant steps to make our Catholic elementary and high schools more accessible to students with special needs. Elias Moo, the superintendent of our Catholic schools, has made it clear that we must provide the resources necessary “so that all of God’s children have access to a Catholic education.” In the words of Abriana Chilelli, Assistant Superintendent: “The goal of our curriculum and pedagogy is to educate students to see reality and to love deeply, and that necessarily includes all human beings.”
The Office of Catholic Schools and certain school pastors and principals are working toward this goal in partnership with the FIRE Foundation of Denver, which is raising money specifically to enable Catholic schools in the Archdiocese to create environments where students of all abilities learn, grow and thrive.The FIRE Foundation of Denver, established less than a year ago, has already raised over $100,000 and $20,000 has been awarded to the Archdiocese as a salary grant to a new member of the Office of Catholic Schools permanent staff who will serve as principal becomes student support services.Also this year, grants were awarded to two archdiocesan elementary schools to cover the costs of paraprofessional teaching support and teaching equipment.With its first full-fledged fundraiser, BonFIRE, scheduled for August 27th, and with several more schools already planning to apply for grants in the coming year, FIRE Denver (firefoundationdenver.org) aims to be here for the long term, to cover the costs of developing a culture of inclusive education in more and more of our Catholic schools.
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In our archdiocese there are so many opportunities to walk the path that is pro-life for life. Challenging times are upon us, and it is tempting to be overwhelmed by the outpouring of rhetoric and action against life in our state. To keep our feet in this tumult, we must continue to seek Jesus in everyone we meet and trust that the Holy Spirit is working through our concrete acts, however small, to build up the body of Christ. We have the great blessing of a local church that already has so many opportunities to offer our time, skills and financial support to this mission. And we must measure our own “success” in this mission by our love. Continue!