VATICAN CITY, JAN. 8, 2004 ( The quality of life of a community is measured by the care given to the weakest, especially the disabled, says John Paul II.

The Pope expressed this conviction in a message sent to the participants of the international Symposium on the Dignity of the Person with Mental Handicaps, being held in the Vatican through Friday.

The three-day symposium, an initiative of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is taking place at the conclusion of the European Year of Disabled Persons.

The Holy Father begins his message by outlining the Christian view of the situation. The "disabled person, even when wounded in the mind or in his sensorial and intellective capacities, is a fully human individual, with the sacred and inalienable rights proper to every creature," he writes.

"The human being, in fact, regardless of the conditions in which he lives his life and the capacities that he might manifest, possesses a unique dignity and singular value starting from the beginning of his existence until the moment of natural death," the lengthy message says.

"The person of the disabled, with all his limitations and sufferings, compels us to question ourselves with respect and wisdom on the mystery of man," the Pope continues. "The more we penetrate the dark and unknown areas of human reality, the more we understand that precisely in the most difficult and disquieting situations the dignity and grandeur of the human being emerges."

"The wounded humanity of the handicapped challenges us to acknowledge, accept and promote in each one of these brothers of ours the incomparable value of the human being created by God," the papal text explains.

"The quality of life within a community is measured, to a large extent, by commitment in the care of the weakest and the neediest, and by respect for their dignity as men and women," the Pope adds.

"The world of rights cannot be only the prerogative of the healthy," he writes. "The participation must be facilitated of the disabled person, to the degree possible, in the life of society and he must be helped to develop all his potential in the physical, psychic and spiritual order."

"A society that would only make room for fully functional members, completely autonomous and independent, would not be a society worthy of the human being," he says categorically.

"Discrimination in virtue of efficiency is no less to be condemned than that in virtue of race or sex or religion," the Pontiff explains.

At the same time, John Paul II states that there is "a subtle form of discrimination in the policies and educational projects that try to hide or deny the deficiencies of the handicapped person, proposing styles of life and objectives that do not correspond to their reality and in the end are frustrating and unjust."

"The recognition of rights must be followed, therefore, by the sincere commitment of all to create concrete conditions of life, support structures and juridical guarantees capable of responding to the needs and the dynamics of growth of the handicapped person and those who share his situation, beginning with his relatives," the papal document exhorts.

"People with mental handicap perhaps have greater need of care, affection, understanding and love," John Paul II adds. "They cannot be left alone, defenseless or unprotected, in the difficult task of facing life."