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Called to be Friends of Jesus, by Christy Wilkens

As he does each year, Pope Francis has released a message for the faithful in honor of the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The global theme this year is toward an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable post-COVID-19 world. The Holy Father’s remarks are both a nod to this global message, and a deeply Catholic movement beyond.

Pope Francis chose “You are my friends” (John 15:14) as the guiding principle for his own words. He begins with a greeting assuring people “who live with any condition of disability” that “the Church loves you and needs each of you.”

A fuller (Catholic) model of disability

These words are a balm, and a tacit recognition that the Church has not always lived up to its own ideals in this regard. Pope Francis explicitly acknowledges this lack later in his address, noting that the view of disabilities “as if they were a kind of disease” is one of the things that contributes to discrimination in the form of a lack of spiritual care, even unto denying the sacraments.

He shows a more nuanced understanding of disabilities than he has in previous documents. In response to Amoris Laetitia, for example, the Pope was (rightly) criticized for promoting the narrow view that people with disabilities were gifts, as if these people are objects whose purpose is to draw others into loving action rather than active agents in their own right. In this week’s address, though, Pope Francis explains that disabilities “are the result of the interaction between social barriers and each person's limitations,” drawing on more recent, emerging models of disability that point out the ways in which the flaws are in the system, rather than the person. It’s a welcome turn to hear these models woven into a discussion of Catholic systems and societies, too.

Disproportionate impact

In keeping with this year’s UN theme, Pope Francis had words related to the Covid pandemic and its effect on the disability community as well. He noted several key experiences that our own family faced, in a way that made me (at least) feel very seen:

"I think, for example, of you being forced to stay at home for long periods of time; the difficulty experienced by many students with disabilities in accessing aids to distance learning; the lengthy interruption of social care services in a good number of countries; and many other hardships that you have had to face."

Interestingly, he also harkened back to that memorable day in April 2020, when the Holy Father walked, alone, bearing the Eucharist out into the empty, rain-soaked plaza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, imparting a blessing onto the entire watching world via the miracle of modern technology. He reminded us, as he did that day, that we are all “on the same boat,” all “weak and vulnerable” in one way or another, and all “called to row together.”

Friendship with Jesus

Our own family has learned that difficulties shared -- shared with the friend we have in Jesus, and shared with the friends we have in each other -- is the most peaceable path forward through a stormy, challenging earthly life. “Having Jesus as a friend is an immense consolation,” Pope Francis reminds us.

For us, the consolation has always been in having a Savior who took on flesh to understand the pain and hardship of human life. He understood those hardships not only through his own wounds and Passion, but through his encounters with people who were disabled in the Gospels. A common (modern) criticism is that the Gospel healings were ableist -- that Jesus worked his miracles through the un-disabling of disabled bodies as a way to build his credibility.

But Pope Francis’s interpretation of these stories is both gentler and more profound. “The Gospels show that whenever persons with disabilities met Jesus, their lives changed profoundly, and they became his witnesses,” he notes. The Pope says nothing about their bodies changing. Their lives were changed. Their witness was changed. The same offer is open to all of us, whatever the state of our bodies.

Would that we could all have a thorn in our side that would bring us into closer friendship with Jesus, where we, too, could be changed so profoundly.

Christy Wilkens, wife and mother of six, is an armchair philosopher who lives in Austin, TX. She writes about disability, faith, doubt, suffering, community, and good reads. She is the author of, Awakening at Lourdes: How an Unanswered Prayer Healed Our Family and Restored Our Faith, a memoir about a Lourdes pilgrimage with her husband and son, published by Ave Maria Press. Find her at