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Carmelites join in events dedicated to disability
12 July 2012

In early July Carmelites took part in and provided a venue for events dedicated to disability. On the eve of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Catholic Church in England and Wales held an international conference in London and a national day at Aylesford Priory to demonstrate and witness that, in the words of John Paul II, "the body has the ability to manifest God’s deepest whisper".

The international conference, entitled 'EveryBody Has A Place', and the national day called ‘Now Is The Time To Be Friends’, explored and celebrated the gifts of all people while considering particular theory and practice in the topics of disability, theology and sport.

Delegates gathered for the international conference.

The international conference 'EveryBody Has A Place' was held on 2nd July at London's Methodist Central Hall. It was attended by 160 people including people with disabilities and their families, professional staff, academics, clergy, members of religious orders, and people from all denominations interested in the centrality of disability in the Christian experience.

The international conference took place at Methodist Central Hall.

Among those taking part were Carmelite friar Fr. Antony Lester, O.Carm., who describes his life as having been profoundly changed through involvement in Faith and Light (communities made up of persons with an intellectual disability, their family and friends), and more recently through his work in Lourdes with the Catholic Association Pilgrimage, HCPT - Pilgrimage Trust, and the HNDL organisation that welcomes pilgrims to the French Sanctuary, particularly those who are sick and disabled. Also present was Mrs. Shell Roca, who travels to Lourdes as a member of the annual pilgrimage of the British Province of Carmelites and is Director of Westminster Archdiocese's Deaf Service.

The Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, opened the conference and each speaker affirmed the unique place of every body in creation.

Archbishop Peter Smith.

Speakers included Professor John Swinton (University of Aberdeen), Dr. David Jones (Elizabeth Anscombe Centre for Bioethics), Dr. Pia Mathews (St. John’s Seminary, Wonersh), and Baroness Sheila Hollins (President of the British Medical Association). Paralympian Stefanie Read recorded her testimony for the conference, and the afternoon concluded with presentations from Andy Reed, O.B.E., from the Special Olympics Association.

Speakers taking questions from the floor.

The opening keynote speaker, Professor John Swinton, spoke of the need to provide people with a place of belonging. "Inclusion is no longer enough," he said, "... To be true to the Gospel means ensuring that everyone has a place where they belong and are not merely included, where they are welcome at the heart of a community, where they are appreciated and deeply missed when not present." He spoke of the Church needing to own and promote a new way of approaching the disabled person, rejecting the traditional approach of piety that focuses on a person’s vulnerability.

Cristina Gangemi, disability consultant to the Catholic Church in England and Wales, called the Paralympics a Christological event. "The Paralympics show us what Christ asks all of us to do," she said, "to see a person regardless of their human form in all its potential and placing that person into a society in which the disability disappears. The Paralympics enact the Theology of the Body written by John Paul II, who was himself a great sportsman. He was always in shape, firmly disciplined, and allowed the Spirit to guide him in sport. He also demonstrated, experiencing firsthand the physical disability, that there is continuity between health and illness and that the body must be respected and honored at all stages."

A day dedicated to disability then took place at Aylesford Carmelite Priory in Kent on 8th July. Previously such a day was organised for Southwark Archdiocese, but this year the day was organised by a joint committee made up of diocesan disability consultants, Faith and Light, HCPT Pilgrimage Trust and others engaging with those with disabilities.

Celebrating the Olympics and Paralympics at the national day in Aylesford.

Hundreds of people attended from across the country, about half of whom were themesleves disabled, with the focus being on the human person in its full diversity.

Pilgrims gathered for the national day at Aylesford Priory.

Pilgrims at prayer.

The day was for the most part led by people with disabilities and included sports and arts, music, prayers, and finally Mass celebrated by Bishop John Hine.

A drama about disability in the time of Jesus.

An offertory procession presenting the giftedness of all people.

Bishop John presiding at the Eucharist.

The opportunity was taken towards the end of the day to thank Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, which inspired much of the work being done today with those who are disabled. (As previously reported on this website, some Carmelites spent time on retreat with Jean Vanier in 2010).

Fr. Tony Lester (right) and others on retreat in 2010 with Jean Vanier (centre).

Aside from theory and practice, great graces have been experienced through these new ventures. Julie Henry, who prepared and led the music for the national day, was herself very recently in a coma. Her daughter brought some holy water to her hospital bed and soon she was awake and speaking to doctors saying: "I still have to lead the music at Aylesford. It is on my heart and my goal is to be well and to be there." She led an amazing day of liturgical music and playful celebration.

One person wrote from their wheelchair of the effects both events are having on her life: "I know now that my journey must become more embodied, more disciplined, and committed in walk with God, both physically and spiritually. I know He wants to teach me about nurturing, honouring, celebrating and sharing the body He has gifted to me. Even in the last few days, this new understanding has given rise to a willingness to risk giving up my pride, my self-sufficiency, and my envy, and to share more honestly and vulnerably with my friends and with God all my hopes, my fears and my dreams. I even plan to join a local gym in the next week too."

Both days were characterised by the commitment of all those present to continue working together to build a just and fair society, but where more significantly people with disabilities are not just included, but where they feel they truly matter and wholeheartedly belong.

Source: CCEW News & Media

Photography: Mazur/Catholicnews.org.uk
and Southwark Archdiocese