By Justin McLellan
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — Sharing the pilgrimage experience with people with disabilities is a testament to the Catholic Church’s ability to accompany all of its members and to proclaim the Gospel by caring for others, Pope Francis said.
Meeting at the Vatican Dec. 14 with a delegation from UNITALSI, an Italian Catholic association that organizes pilgrimages for the sick and for people with disabilities, the pope praised how the organization “puts on the same path healthy and sick people, the elderly and the youth, consecrated and lay people.”
Through an attitude of inclusivity, the pilgrimage experience “becomes a living sign of a church that walks together, that supports who is not able to make it and that does not want to leave anyone behind,” he said. “It is the image of the ‘field hospital’ church.”
The pope added that, like the good Samaritan who tended to a beaten man in silence, people caring for those in difficulty must do so “with discretion, because before suffering, words must leave space to closeness and acts of tenderness.”
Several rows of seats were cleared out of the Paul VI Audience Hall to make space for the many people in wheelchairs who attended the meeting. Seated behind them were those who accompany the elderly and people with disabilities on pilgrimages.
Pope Francis told them that the pilgrimages they organize “are a balm on the wounds of the many people with disabilities, illnesses, elderly people or those in need of help that you accompany to Lourdes and other significant sanctuaries in Italy and abroad.”
UNITALSI was founded in 1903 after a young Italian lay person suffering from severe arthritis went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and wanted to share the experience with others who would otherwise have difficulty embarking on a pilgrimage. Today the organization recruits lay volunteers, consecrated religious, families and doctors to take people to Lourdes and holy places around Italy, as well as to Santiago de Compostela, Spain; Fátima, Portugal; and the Holy Land.
Pope Francis said that such trips are “journeys of healing — in different dimensions — that promote the dignity of every human existence, especially one marked by illness, frailty and suffering.”
He added that their work is also one of evangelization “through example, with a proclamation that has the flavor of practicality.”
“This is a language that can speak to all, as we see in the Gospel when people approached Jesus, because in him they saw the strength of a God that heals, of a God that forgives, of a God that consoles, of a God that gives hope,” he said.