By Barb Arland-Fye
Pope Francis sits at a table, sun streaming from the windows behind him, clearly enjoying his visit with individuals with disabilities in a L’Arche community on the outskirts of Rome.
L’Osservatore Romano captured the image May 13, when Pope Francis made the fifth of his monthly “Mercy Fridays” to commemorate the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Vatican Radio said the Holy Father identified this visit as one of the most profound of his pontificate.
The image evoked a déjà vu moment. Three years ago Bishop Martin Amos and I visited L’Arche communities in France, sitting at dinner tables and picnic tables for meals with L’Arche members who made us feel like rock stars.
I still laugh remembering one young woman’s efforts to impress Bishop Amos with her budding English skills: “I love you, Baby!” she exclaimed. I can’t recall the precise expression on the bishop’s face, but I know we laughed about the comment later. We traveled to France on behalf of the coalition that chose to honor L’Arche founder Jean Vanier with the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award in 2013. Jean lives in France, where he founded L’Arche. The love, joy and generosity I experienced there are cherished memories.
Vatican Radio, in its report on the visit of Pope Francis to the “Chico” L’Arche community near Rome, said: “The L’Arche philosophy is ‘the praise of imperfection,’ that is, to thrive amidst disabilities that the world doesn’t value. The residents of L’Arche are free to make their own way in life, to give and receive deep affection and to form lasting friendships. Pope Francis visited L’Arche as a move to emphasize the value of such principles over an ephemeral, disposable culture.”
In our own Diocese of Davenport a L’Arche community was established more than 40 years ago in Clinton with the help of the Sisters of St. Francis. Bishop Amos and I had dinner in one of the L’Arche houses prior to our trip to France. Clinton’s L’Arche community helped us to celebrate their founder’s achievement with a party (and lots of dancing to rock ’n roll) not long after our return to Davenport.
What I love most about L’Arche is its welcoming attitude toward all guests. You enter a L’Arche house receiving a hug. You leave a L’Arche house feeling uplifted; at least that’s been my experience. Granted, life is not perfect, pain-free or annoyance-free in a L’Arche house or anyone else’s house for that matter.
When I read about or watch video footage of Pope Francis reaching out in love to people with disabilities, addictions, or the infirmities of age, I feel heartened as a mother of an adult son with autism. For families who journey with a loved one with a disability, acceptance by the greater community is as precious as a pearl, especially during moments when our loved one’s disability overwhelms everyone.
A doctor our family respects once wrote that Colin would probably not be able to be gainfully employed as an adult because of his disability. I took the sense of loss personally because the society in which we live still measures success based on IQ, GPA, advanced college degree and marketplace achievements.
I know, based on the teachings of the Catholic Church, that my son’s employability or lack thereof does not impact his intrinsic value as a beloved child of God. But what helps to reinforce the teaching is the compassion shown by Pope Francis and the memories of breaking bread in L’Arche communities.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)