What does it mean to be pro-life? At its core, it means to recognize every human being as who he or she is: the intentional creation of God, who has deliberately called this person into life.
Whatever a human being’s condition, young or old, healthy or sick, law abiding or criminal, as disciples of Jesus we are called to see Jesus himself in this person and to respond to him or her in a way that befits the Imago Dei. We are to see every human being as an actual or potential member of the Body of Christ, and to see each as essential to that body, as one of “us” and never as some anonymous alien “them.”
As the parents of a person who is disabled, my husband and I have first-hand experience of the trauma of receiving an unexpected pre-natal diagnosis, subsequent pressure to treat the new life within me as something to be feared, and even the assurance of a doctor that, if he were present for her birth, he would not treat her for any medical issue related to her disability. He definitely saw our baby as one of “them” and openly disdained our insistence that she be treated as one of “us.” That was over 23 years ago and our daughter, Rachel, is an engaging, cheerful young adult able to take any screen interface from blank to music videos in under five seconds. She is also prone to serial hugging, turning off all the lights left on in empty or occupied rooms, and singing something other than what the choir is singing during Mass.
Our life with Rachel has given us a lot of opportunities to think through what it means for the Church to recognize people with disabilities as members of the Body of Christ and work to literally in-corpor-ate them into our life as a Church. We have learned the difference it makes when people shift from seeing this work as something “nice” to do for disabled people and their families to seeing it as necessary to the flourishing of the Body of Christ itself; when we shift from seeing accommodations for people with special needs as something we do for them because they want to be with us to something we do because we want them to be with us — we want them to be “us” and not an extraneous “them.” Michele Chronister, who works with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, puts it this way: “Accessibility is less about serving those with disabilities, and more about acknowledging … that we need the gifts that God has given them, in order for the Church to truly flourish.” The Church is simply incomplete to the extent that persons with disabilities are not incorporated into her life.
My husband and I sometimes reflect that our Rachel has been our primary “formator” — she has taught us so much more about life than we have taught her. Under her tutelage we have learned that fulfillment is found 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 point of life. My husband and I might have been able to know 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 kind of formation can extend beyond the domestic Church to the Church at large. I think it is providence that has enabled us to learn so much about how to include people with disabilities in this same era when we are shifting from Christendom to a new Apostolic Age: we are entering a time when there will be many fewer Christian achievements that are celebrated in the culture at large. We will need to measure our success by the faithfulness of our discipleship, not by the acknowledgement 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 “School of the Lord’s Service,” a guiding framework adopted by the Archdiocese in 2020. “[T]he measure of success,” it says, is “in being who one is meant to be: a son or daughter of the Father, open to truth, pursuing goodness, transformed by beauty, and made for eternal life with God. While material success may follow from this, it is not the essential aim of education in a Catholic school.” It is no accident that at the same time our archdiocese is articulating this recalibration of success in education, we have also taken significant steps toward making 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 commit the resources necessary “so all God’s children can access a Catholic education.” In the words of Abriana Chilelli, associate superintendent, “The aim of our curriculum and pedagogy is to form students to be able to see reality, and to love deeply, and that necessarily includes all people.”
The Office of Catholic Schools and the pastors and principals of particular schools are working toward this goal in partnership with the FIRE Foundation of Denver, which raises money specifically to enable Catholic schools in the archdiocese to create environments where students of all abilities learn, grow and thrive. Founded less than a year ago, FIRE Foundation of Denver has already raised over $100,000 and $20,000 has been awarded as a grant to the archdiocese toward the salary for a new member of the permanent staff of the Office of Catholic Schools who will serve as Director of Student Support Services. Grants were also awarded this year to two archdiocesan elementary schools to cover the cost of paraprofessional classroom support and classroom equipment. With its first full blown fundraiser, BonFIRE, scheduled for Aug. 27, and with several additional schools already planning to apply for grants in the coming year, FIRE Denver (firefoundationdenver.org) aims to be here for the long haul to defray the costs of developing a culture of inclusive education in more and more of our Catholic schools.
There are so many opportunities in our archdiocese to “walk the walk” that is pro-life for the whole of life. We face challenging times ahead and it is tempting to be overwhelmed by the wave of anti-life rhetoric and action in our state. To keep our feet in this tumult, we must continue to seek Jesus in everyone we encounter and trust that the Holy Spirit is working through our concrete actions, however small, to build up the Body of Christ. We have the great blessing of a local Church which has so many avenues already in place for us to offer our time, our skills and our financial support in this mission. And we must measure our own “success” in this mission by our love. Onward!
To learn more about the FIRE Foundation of Denver and ti get tickets to their first annual BonFIRE Fundraiser on Aug. 27, visit firefoundationdenver.org.