Pope Francis’ Gestures Are a Reminder That God Loves Us All

Pope Francis reaches out to embrace a little child in the crowd in St. Peter's Square.
Pope Francis reaches out to embrace a little child in the crowd in St. Peter's Square. (photo: Photo credit: Daniel Ibañez/Catholic News Agency)

During his recent visit to Poland, Pope Francis made several gestures showing that the Church’s “preferential option for the poor” encompasses not only the victims of material poverty, but also people with disabilities. These were not his first such gestures, and they should encourage us to reach out to the “peripheries” and bring joy to those members of our communities whose suffering is too rarely acknowledged.

On his way to Czestochowa from Krakow on July 28, Francis visited Krakow’s archbishop emeritus, Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, who was in a coma and passed away a few days later. Right before celebrating Mass in Czestochowa, the Pope kissed a little girl in a wheelchair. That same day, more than a dozen people with disabilities and their caretakers accompanied him during his 15-minute ride in the “Papal Tram” to Błonie Park.

The next day, Pope Francis celebrated the Stations of the Cross in Błonie. Each station was illustrated by a corporal act of mercy and a Catholic community that performs that act, including the L’Arche community, founded by Jean Vanier (a living saint, to many), which builds homes for people with intellectual disabilities and their caretakers around the world. Earlier that day, Pope Francis visited sick children and those with disabilities in a hospital.

“Our society is polluted with the culture of rejection. The victims of this are the weakest, most fragile people,” he said.

While these events were widely reported in the Polish media, the English-language media largely ignored them. They were more interested if Francis would lecture Poland’s conservative government on accepting Muslim migrants and fighting global warming.

Similarly, during World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013, the headlines were dominated by Francis’ instantly viral comment on homosexuals (“Who am I to judge?”). That the Pope met with and embraced a Brazilian couple with a child with anencephaly (a rare condition in which major portions of the brain do not develop) received much less coverage.

Francis has frequently shown his preference for those living on the “peripheries.” While these “peripheries” have become synonymous with the victims of material poverty, his gestures in Krakow, Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere show that those with disabilities also live on the margins of society and need our charity.

There are two major implications resulting from these gestures. First, they are a direct challenge to the legislative culture of death that has so aggressively spread around the world. Poland and Brazil have fairly similar abortion legislation. In both heavily Catholic nations, abortion is illegal, with a couple of exceptions, including deformation of the unborn child. In Poland, abortion is legal in the case of loosely defined “fetal malformation,” while, in 2012, Brazil’s Supreme Court decided that unborn children with anencephaly may be legally killed in utero. In countries with more permissive abortion laws, including the United States, most children diagnosed with conditions like Down syndrome are aborted.

Naturally, Francis is aware of this. Brazil neighbors his native Argentina, so he certainly knew about these judicial legislative trends in 2013. Meanwhile, during his address to Poland’s government in Wawel Castle for World Youth Day 2016, the Pope made a strong pro-life appeal: “Life must always be welcomed and protected. These two things go together — welcome and protection — from conception to natural death. All of us are called to respect life and care for it,” he said. Recently, Polish pro-lifers gathered 450,000 votes for a civic bill that would completely ban abortion in Poland. Parliament will vote on it soon. It’s highly probable that the Polish bishops briefed Francis on this ahead of his visit.

Pope Francis’ embrace of persons with often-severe disabilities is a strong statement about the most vulnerable victims of the culture of death.

Second, Francis’ gestures should make us remember people with disabilities in our communities. Very often, those with disabilities are hidden from public view. Francis, by contrast, had them accompany him in front of hundreds of thousands of faithful.

Pope Francis’ gestures remind us that God loves every human being without respect for their station in life, including the weakest and most vulnerable.

The Pope’s actions should inspire us to do the same. If the Pope can find some time out of his busy schedule to visit the sick and those with disabilities, we also can take a break from chasing our career goals or other busyness and volunteer at a home for people with disabilities or with an organization like L’Arche — or simply visit with special souls in need of our care and attention.