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The vocation to holiness, is for everyone, even the disabled


Alessandra Tarantino | AP Photo

Kathryn Jean Lopez - published on 06/20/17

'God's Wild Flowers' author Pia Matthews suggests that sanctity flowers under severe challenges.

“Disabled saints and the blessed, working in the field of social action, witness to a true solidarity and so demonstrate heroic virtues when they answer the needs of all human beings whether abled or disabled,” Pia Matthews writes in a book called God’s Wild Flowers: Saints with Disabilities. As the title suggests, disabilities can be a great flowering of sanctity in human life, families, and communities – and certainly in the Church. Matthews, a lecturer in theology, philosophy, and bioethics in the United Kingdom, talks about some of diverse ways of holiness in the midst of even quite severe challenges.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is Saint John Paul II so important when talking about people with disabilities?

Pia Matthews: At the end of the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II said he used to watch the pilgrims queuing to go through the Holy Door and he used to try and imagine their lives of difficulties, struggles and hopes. In his rather extensive writings, the saint also took time to write about people with disabilities and notably people with intellectual disabilities. As part of what he saw as his task of implementing Vatican II, the Holy Father speaks passionately about the vocation to holiness as a vocation all human beings have. It is not a vocation reserved only to a few.

You write about St. Camillus de Lellis, who founded a ministry to plague victims. How relevant is his life to anyone today?

Matthews: Saint Camillus is one of the patron saints for sick people, hospitals, nurses, and physicians. If you read his life story you can see a man who had been addicted, who was clearly frustrated in not being accepted into monastic life, who was also very angry. But he really did see the suffering of other people and he did something about it, including working on reforming an unjust system. Possibly harnessing his anger and frustration into more positive energy? He followed the path that God wanted, not his own path and he went where he was needed. This witness is certainly relevant today.

What’s the lesson of Blessed Hyacinthe Marie Cormier’s life?

Matthews: The life story of Blessed Hyacinthe always makes me smile. It really is about God’s ways not being our ways and that includes the ways of religious orders. Here is a young man who was desperate to become a Dominican but the rules prevented it for good reason since this vocation could be difficult for people who were not in robust health. He only gets his desire because those in charge thought he was dying. And of course, God’s ways not being our ways, he recovers sufficiently to take up a significant role in promoting seminary studies based on Saint Thomas Aquinas, and the teachings of Aquinas become hugely important for theology.

You write that “the principles of the Church’s social teaching apply equally to the disabled as to the abled.” Why is this critical?

A great deal is talked about closing the separation between “them” and “us.” A number of people also claim that the Church has not really addressed the issue of disability. Yet Catholic Social Teaching is a marvelous illustration that there is no “them” and “us,” there is only “us” and “we.” The Church does not single out disabled people because the principles of human dignity, of justice, subsidiarity, solidarity, the common good, the option for the poor apply to everyone and there is no discrimination.

And the Church does address the issue of disability: under “human dignity” the Church recognizes the dignity of all human beings no matter their situation or condition, abled or disabled; under “justice” the Church calls for a biblical justice that goes beyond giving people simply what is their due; under “subsidiarity” people are encouraged to do what they can do and to participate as far as they can knowing that help is at hand; under “solidarity” we know we all live in fellowship with each other and carry each other’s burdens; under “the common good” no one person’s good can be sacrificed and the good of one is the good for all; under the “preferential option for the poor,” where the poor are all those who live marginalized lives, there is perhaps particular attention to people with disabilities.

It is important to realize that while a part of the option for the poor is to seek to alleviate problems and suffering, a more significant part is that the Church recognizes that people on the margins are in fact closer to God. So the option for the poor is not a matter of charity, social work or pity. Rather, the poor and people with disabilities realize that they are dependent, that life is fragile, that there is a different perspective on the world other than speed, function and efficiency. They can come perhaps more easily to realize that we all need God, a realization that comes often more slowly to the strong and autonomous.

Why should we want or need any saints in our lives, never mind ones who were disabled in one way or another?

People have always understood things better when it is explained through stories of actual people because we can understand, accept and work through the experience of others to make sense of things and of our own experience. This means that stories of the saints can have resonance with people even if they do not take the same view as Catholics of sainthood. We are able to relate our own stories to that of others: it is a form of solidarity if you like. However the lives of the saints are also witnesses and sources of hope for all of us who are on the path to holiness, and all of us are on that path. In particular they give us the correct focus: the model is not the saint but the one the saint follows – Jesus.

How did Catherine of Siena make it into your book?

The idea of bearing the weight of the world is, I think, a good description of emotional stress or an intense interior life that sometimes manifests itself as a disability. Saint Catherine of Sienna talks about the weight of responsibility that she felt in her role in supporting the papacy and so this seems to tie into that feeling of bearing the weight of the world. Saint Catherine has often been linked to anorexia but I wanted to show that her deeply intensive life was even more profound. And by the way, one of my names is Katherine.

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