The following is the text of the homily of Bishop Rhoades at the Mass for persons with disabilities on Respect Life Sunday, October 6th, at Saint Jude Church, Fort Wayne:
Saint Paul wrote to his delegate, Saint Timothy, that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” He told Timothy not to be ashamed of his testimony to our Lord but to bear his “share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
Saint Paul’s teaching and advice are important and relevant for us today. Whatever our abilities or disabilities, we all have received from the Lord not a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. We all have been called to bear witness or testimony to the Lord.
How edified I have been by the powerful and loving witness of many persons with disabilities in our diocese, of individuals and families who indeed bear their share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. I believe that your witness to the Lord is vital to the Church’s mission of evangelization in the world today. It is good to focus on the gifts of persons with disabilities since your generous sharing of your gifts, in the midst of hardship and struggle at times, is a powerful sign to all of the power of God’s grace and love.
We all struggle with life, in one way or another. For some, the struggle may be due to a physical, emotional, or mental disability. For others, it may be due to family troubles, loneliness, grief, or poverty. Saint Paul counsels all to bear their hardships with the strength that comes from God. To do so requires faith. At times we can waver in our faith. Our faith can be tested. It can become weak. We all need to pray like the apostles in today’s Gospel: “Lord, increase our faith.” Jesus teaches that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, an extremely small seed, we could say to a big mulberry tree “Be uprooted and planted in the sea” and it would obey.
We gather here this afternoon in faith and mutual love to celebrate the gifts of our brothers and sisters with disabilities. We come to Mass to receive strength from the Lord in the Eucharist so that we can indeed bear our share of hardship for the Gospel. In the midst of life’s struggles, we turn to the Lord and His Church and we are renewed in spirit and strengthened in our faith. “Lord, increase our faith,” the prayer of the apostles, is our prayer.
Today the Church in the United States celebrates Respect Life Sunday. I could not think of a more appropriate community to celebrate Mass with this Sunday than you. In their pastoral statement on persons with disabilities in 1978, the United States bishops wrote about the right to life and said that “the defense of the right to life of handicapped persons is a matter of particular urgency” since “the presence of handicapping conditions is not infrequently used as a rationale for abortion.” This is as true today as it was 35 years ago. The bishops wrote that “the defense of the right to life … implies (also) the defense of other rights which enable the handicapped individual to achieve the fullest measure of personal development of which he or she is capable.”
The bishops go on to talk about the Church’s duty to reach out to handicapped people and ensure a full appreciation of the beautiful contribution they can make to the Church’s spiritual life: “Handicapped individuals bring with them a special insight into the meaning of life; for they live, more than the rest of us perhaps, in the shadow of the cross. And out of their experience they forge virtues like courage, patience, perseverance, compassion, and sensitivity that should serve as an inspiration to all Christians.”
These words remind me of Saint Paul’s words to Timothy with which I began this homily: “For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control.” You who have disabilities have so much to teach me and others, by your example, about faith and courage, about patience and perseverance, about compassion and sensitivity. You also have a duty, as do all members of the Church, to do the Lord’s work in the world, according to your God-given talents and capacity.
We should not focus so much on disabilities as to neglect your gifts and abilities and the ways you can and do serve the Lord and His Church. And the whole Church must continue to seek to remove any obstacles to your full and active participation in the life of the Church. Catholics are much poorer when we do not experience and receive your gifts which help build up the Body of Christ, the Church, at every level: parish, diocese, and beyond. The Church is stronger when the gifts of all are welcomed and when a true spirit of mutual love extends to all, without discrimination.
As I said earlier, we all have struggles in life. Some are more visible than others. Some are more intense than others. We can only bear the crosses that are part of life with the strength that comes from God. That’s why we are here, to receive the strength which the Lord gives us preeminently in the Eucharist. He also gives us His grace and strength in the other sacraments. We know that we all need to rely on the Lord in the midst of life’s struggles. And so, the prayer of the apostles is a prayer we need to say often “Lord, increase our faith.”
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