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St Francis Xavier, disability, and examining our limits

  • 02 December 2020

3 December has a couple of interesting resonances for this blind Jesuit. It is the feast day of St Francis Xavier — Jesuit missionary extraordinaire. It is also the International Day of Persons with a Disability. It seems to me that the two anniversaries have more than a little in common — both in what they tell us about the limits and the promise of human life in the image of God.

Xavier, as I have suggested elsewhere, is a very complicated person. This Basque noble was able to see Christ present in anyone, regardless of race or class, and eminently available to push boundaries (physical and spiritual) in the name of the God of Love. He insisted on Jesuits inculturating — learning the languages of those they wished to serve and understanding something of their communities.

However, he was also definitely very much a man of his time when it came to missing the richness of the cultures among which he moved. His understanding of the absolute need for conversion as end in itself meant that baptisms were more important than community building and the Church he introduced to the locals often viewed them more as targets for discipline than collaborators in the vineyard of the Lord.

The UN’s International Day of Persons with Disability also invites a complex response. Like Xavier, it speaks of a concern for others which transcends borders or historical prejudice. It summons people to a recognition of shared purpose and common humanity — an invitation across psychological and social boundaries that divide even more emphatically than lines on a map. As Pope Francis says in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (98):

'I would like to mention some of those "hidden exiles" who are treated as foreign bodies in society. Many persons with disabilities “feel that they exist without belonging and without participating". Much still prevents them from being fully enfranchised. Our concern should be not only to care for them but to ensure their "active participation in the civil and ecclesial community. That is a demanding and even tiring process, yet one that will gradually contribute to the formation of consciences capable of acknowledging each individual as a unique and unrepeatable person".'

Yet, like Xavier, we start from here: from the prejudices and mindsets of our own time. It is easy to sneer at the prejudices of the 16th century Church about salvation of the pagans and horrors (such as the