To understand the theological underpinnings of Pope Francis’s vision and agenda for the Catholic Church, you should study his papal documents and read his speeches. But to appreciate his mission in action, you should check him out on YouTube. There you will find videos featuring some of his most powerful moments — his encounters with people on the margins of society: prisoners, refugees, the poor, the homeless, and, most of all, people with disabilities.
In a video from last Easter Sunday, Francis is seen touring St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in his popemobile. At one point his attention is directed to the front row of the throng of pilgrims. Suddenly an usher lifts up a small boy who appears to have a physical disability.
Francis takes the boy into his arms, kisses him, and whispers something into his ear. The boy — eight-year-old Dominic Gondreau, an American, who has cerebral palsy — looks positively enraptured.
The scene lasted no more than 15 seconds, but video and photographs of the encounter quickly went viral. A photo of the embrace got top billing on the Drudge Report and was published in the New York Post, Wall Street Journal, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Le Figaro. Fox News, NBC News, ABC News, and CNN all showed clips and aired follow-up interviews with Dominic and his family.
Something similar happened one morning last November during the pope’s weekly general audience in Saint Peter’s. Photos from that day show Francis embracing Vinicio Riva, an Italian man with neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic condition affecting cell growth of neural tissues, which has left him covered with severe tumors, swelling, and itchy sores. One can imagine many people being repulsed by Riva’s condition, but it seemed to draw Pope Francis.
“He came down from the altar to see the sick people,” the 53-year-old Riva later told reporters. “He embraced me without saying a word. I felt as though my heart was leaving my body.” Riva described the hug as “like paradise. My head was against his chest, his arms were wrapped around me. It lasted just over a minute, but to me it seemed like an eternity.”
Riva’s moment with Francis also went viral. Photos were shown on local, national, and international news broadcasts, posted on Facebook, and tweeted thousands of times. The event was picked up by publications as diverse as People magazine, the Daily Mail, and the Italian magazine Panorama. CNN later broadcast a profile of Riva, and Time magazine ranked the encounter as its second-most heartwarming story of 2013.
Dominic Gondreau and Vinicio Riva aren’t the only people with disabilities whose interactions with Pope Francis have made headlines and melted hearts. There was the striking image of Francis on his knees washing the feet of twelve elderly and disabled people on the Thursday before Easter; there was the touching video of the pope inviting a teenage boy with Down syndrome up to check out the popemobile; and a recent video shows Francis stopping his car to embrace and bless a young woman on a stretcher who was waiting by the side of the road with her family.
Since taking over as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis has made it an important part of his mission to combat what he calls “the ‘throw away’ culture,” according to which everything can be discarded. He has called on all people of goodwill to engage in “a culture of encounter, solidarity, and hospitality” with people on the margins of society, including people with disabilities. This proposal of his could not have been more timely.
The first indication that Pope Francis intended to make solidarity with the marginalized a major theme of his papacy was the name he chose for himself, in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. One of history’s most venerated religious figures, Saint Francis was born into moderate wealth and lived a life of some extravagance until a gradual spiritual conversion led him to embrace monastic poverty and simplicity. He came to believe that the only way to truly love the poor, sick, and oppressed was to become one of them.
“As Francis showed mercy to these outcasts, he came to experience God’s own gift of mercy to himself,” the Dominican historian Augustine Thompson writes. “As he cleaned the lepers’ bodies, dressed their wounds, and treated them as human beings, not as refuse to be fled from in horror, his perceptions changed. . . . Francis’s aesthetic sense, so central to his personality, had been transformed, even inverted. The startled veteran sensed himself, by God’s grace and no power of his own, remade into a different man.”
Pope Francis calls on us to be similarly transformed. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and elsewhere, Francis laments the “throw away’ culture” that is “no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new” — exclusion of the suffering not to the margins of society but outside it altogether. The victims, he writes, “are precisely the weakest and most fragile human beings — the unborn, the poorest, the sick and elderly, the seriously handicapped.”
In some ways people with disabilities have more opportunities than ever to live long and fulfilling lives. But, paradoxically, many are being left behind in a culture that prizes efficiency and utility.
Fifteen years ago Robert Edwards, the embryologist who created the first test-tube baby through in vitro fertilization, made this famous prediction: “Soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children.” In August, prominent evolutionary biologist and public atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted, “It would be immoral to bring [a child with Down syndrome] into the world if you have the choice.”
#page#“In point of fact,” Dawkins wrote in a follow-up tweet, “a majority of Down Syndrome fetuses in Europe and USA are aborted. What I recommend is not outlandish but the norm.” Sadly, Dawkins was (sort of) right. Most babies with Down syndrome are not aborted, but the vast majority whose condition is diagnosed before birth are.
The throwaway culture is endemic in the U.S., where polls show large majorities supporting abortion when there is a chance of fetal impairment. Most states have laws that allow parents to sue doctors who fail to detect defects in unborn children: In “wrongful birth” lawsuits, physicians can be forced to pay the estimated costs of raising a child with a disability.
But the “throwaway culture” often manifests itself in much subtler ways. Most of us do not consciously reject people with disabilities. The days when people with disabilities were openly mocked are mostly behind us. But many of us feel awkward or embarrassed to be in their presence. We do not know how to act and are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, so we do and say nothing at all.
Francis shows us a better way. Look at the photos and videos of him interacting with people with disabilities or deformities. He is totally at ease. He touches them and allows himself to be touched. He often gives a papal blessing and always makes sustained eye contact.
There is a photo of Francis sharing a moment with a man whose face is sunken. Francis stands close, smiling and looking into his eyes as he would while chatting with anyone. There is no pity in Francis’s expression, only respect for a fellow human being. He embraces the man and then gives him a blessing. His actions are touching in their simplicity and ordinariness.
Just as often, Francis allows his actions to do the talking, like his namesake, who is said to have taught, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” Vinicio Riva, the Italian man suffering from tumors, commented that Francis in reaching out to him “was completely silent, but sometimes you can say more when you say nothing.” It struck Riva that Francis appeared not to think twice about embracing him. “I’m not contagious,” Riva said, “but he didn’t know that. But he just did it: He caressed me all over my face, and as he did I felt only love.”
Francis seems to understand the power of human touch — that it can convey trust, hope, and empathy; that it can be therapeutic in its ability to soothe and heal. Studies of orphanages from the early 20th century found that the mortality rate of infants deprived of touch was much higher than that of infants who were not. Today, it is standard care in many neonatal intensive-care units to gently stroke and massage preterm babies to stimulate growth and weight gain.
The pope’s approach to disability mirrors that of Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher and founder of L’Arche, a worldwide community of thousands of people with and without disabilities who live together. We see the disabled and we want to turn away because, Vanier writes, we don’t want to be “swallowed up by their pain and their need.”
This is particularly true in the status-anxious West. “When we have constructed our lives around particular values of knowledge, power, and social esteem,” Vanier writes, “it is difficult for us to accept those who cannot live by the same set of values. It is as if we are threatened by such people.” The antidote is not tolerance but acceptance and celebration. “So many people with disabilities are seen by their parents and families only as a tragedy,” Vanier explains. “They are surrounded by sad faces, sometimes full of pity, sometimes tears. But every child, every person, needs to know that they are a source of joy; every child, every person, needs to be celebrated.”
Vanier believes that in order to accept other people’s disabilities, we must first accept our own. “Only when all of our weaknesses are accepted as part of our humanity can our negative, broken self-images be transformed.”
Before meeting Pope Francis in March, Vanier spoke about the importance of reciprocity in our relationships with people with disabilities:
It’s easy to see that the weak need the strong, but perhaps what is more difficult is that the strong also need the weak. We need those who are small and vulnerable. We need the poor in order to discover our poverty. Living with people who are wounded, we discover our own wounds. And, perhaps, accepting the wounds of others, we learn to accept our own.
This echoes Francis’s observation that “a culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give but also to receive. . . . People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted.”
His message is not only for the disabled. We all must reject any shame we feel about disabilities, including our own, and become champions of every person’s full inclusion in society. Pope Francis is showing us how.
— Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.