Here is a message from the president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, marking today’s 6th World Autism Awareness Day.
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“Dearest brothers and sisters,
On the occasion of the Sixth World Autism Awareness Day, which this year takes place during the liturgical period of the Easter festivities, the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers intends to express the solicitude of the Church for autistic people and their families, inviting Christian communities and people of good will to express authentic solidarity towards them.
I would like to take as a point of departure for my reflections the approach of Jesus who drew near to, and walked with, the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35). The look marked by loss, and even more by amazement, that shaped the steps of Cleopas and Simon could be a similar expression to – and equally similarly be found within – that which marks the faces and the hearts of parents who have a son or a daughter with autism.
Autism: this is a word that still generates fear today even though in very many cultures which traditionally excluded handicaps the ‘diversely able’ have begun to be accepted socially, and many of the prejudices that have surrounded people with disabilities and even their parents have begun to be dismantled. To define someone as autistic seems automatically to involve a negative judgement about those who are afflicted by it, and, implicitly, a sentence involving a definitive distancing from society. On the other hand, the person concerned seems to be unable to communicate in a productive way with other people, at times as though shut up in a ‘glass bell’, in his or her impenetrable, but for us wonderful, interior universe.
This is a ‘typical and stereotyped’ image of the autistic child which requires profound revision. Ever since her birth, as a guiding theme, the Church has always expressed her care for this aspect of medicine through practical testimonies at a universal level. Above all else, this is witness to Love beyond stigma, that social stigma that isolates a sick person and makes him or her feel an extraneous body. I am referring to that sense of loneliness that is often narrated within modern society but which becomes even more present in modern health care which is perfect in its ‘technical aspects’ but increasingly deprived of, and not attentive to, that affective dimension which should, instead, be the defining aspect of every therapeutic act or pathway.
Faced with the problems and the difficulties that these children and their parents encounter, the Church with humility proposes the way of service to the suffering brother, accompanying him with compassion and tenderness on his tortuous human and psycho-relational journey, and taking advantage of the help of parishes, of associations, of Church movements and of men and women of good will.
Dear brothers and sisters, setting oneself to listen must necessarily be accompanied by an authentic fraternal solidarity. There should never fail to be global care for the ‘frail’ person, as a person with autism can be: this takes concrete form with that sense of nearness that every worker, each according to his or her role, must know how to transmit to the sick person and his or her family, not making that person feel a number but making real the situation of a shared journey that is made up of deeds, of attitudes and of words – perhaps not dramatic ones but ones that suggest a daily life that is nearer to normality. This means listening to the imperious exhortation that we should not lose sight of the person in his or her totality: no procedure, however perfect it may be, can be ‘effective’ if it is deprived of the ‘salt’ of Love, of that Love that each one of these sick people, if looked at in their eyes, asks of you. Their smile, the serenity of a family that sees its loved one at the centre of the complex organisation that each one of us, by our specific tasks, is called to manage for his or her life, and perceived and achieved sharing: this is the best ‘outcome’ that will enrich us.
In practice, this is a matter of welcoming autistic children in the various sectors of social, educational, catechistic and liturgical activity in a way that corresponds and is proportionate to their capacity for relationships. Such solidarity, for those who have received the gift of Faith, becomes a loving presence and compassionate nearness for those who suffer, following the example and in imitation of Jesus Christ, the Good Samaritan who by his passion, death and resurrection redeemed humanity.
The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, during the Year of Faith, wishes to share with people who suffer because of autism the hope and certainty that adherence to Love enables us to recognise the Risen Christ every time that he makes himself our neighbour on the journey of life. Let what John Paul II, in whose intercession we trust and the eighth anniversary of whose return to the house of the Father we remember specifically today, be a reference point for us: ‘The quality of life in a community is measured largely by its commitment to assist the weaker and needier members with respect for their dignity as men and women. The world of rights cannot only be the prerogative of the healthy. People with disabilities must also be enabled to participate in social life as far as they can, and helped to fulfil all their physical, psychological and spiritual potential. Only by recognizing the rights of its weakest members can a society claim to be founded on law and justice’ (John Paul II, Message on the Occasion of the International Symposium on the Dignity and Rights of the Mentally Disabled Person, 7-9 January 2004, n. 3).
May what the Holy Father Francis observed during the first days of his papacy – expressing his nearness to the sick and the suffering – be constant light: ‘we must keep the thirst for the absolute alive in the world, not allowing a one-dimensional vision of the human person to prevail, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and to what he consumes: this is one of the most dangerous snares of our time’!
While I hope for the cooperation of everyone in a choral and compassionate answer to the numerous needs that come to us from our brothers and sisters with autism and their families, I entrust the sufferings, the joys and the hopes of these people to the mediation of Mary, Mother of Christ and ‘Health of the Sick’ who, at the foot of the Cross, taught us to pause beside all the crosses of contemporary Man (cf. Salvifici Doloris, n. 31).
To people with autism, to their families and to all those who are involved in their service, while confirming my nearness and prayer, I send my personal and affectionate best wishes for a serene and joyous Easter with the Risen Lord.
The Vatican, 2 April 2013