35 years ago, I had the privilege of a 30-day retreat with the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. In one of the meditations of the first week, I was asked to discover the name by which God calls me. The answer was, and remains for me in my best moments, Joy. As I prayed with the texts for today, Gaudete Sunday, I started wondering if there were other connections to my name in God’s grace. Confirmation was forthcoming, I was baptized on December 16, 1956—that year’s Gaudete Sunday. As I imagine is true for many of us, there was joy among our family members when with God’s blessings and their help and encouragement each of us began this journey in joyful faith, hope, and love.
But what are we to think about those days of exultation that today’s readings offer, and which point to the strengthening of the feeble, sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf, speech for the mute, and food for the hungry? Isaiah, Psalm 145, and today’s Gospel present people with disability and those who live in poverty as the first recipients of God’s favor in days yet to come. Now, it may be that their “healing” is a demonstration of God’s power to upend the status quo. Or, it may be that their healing signals God’s preferential care for those whom the world rejected in those days and still reject today. It surely is an invitation to examine the social patterns of exclusion and injustices directed particularly against people with disability and those others who are oppressed and otherwise marginalized … and for us to do something about it. Even with this mandate, throughout recorded history all forms of inequality, injustice, and oppression against people with disability have been sanctioned in one way or another on the basis of assumptions of biological, moral, and social inferiority alongside a presumed failure on their part or failures of their parents by sin. The results of those assumptions stand as a witness against newborns, infants, children, and adults who have been neglected, abused, and murdered on account of the presence of disability in their lives.
Surprisingly to many, the World Health Organization estimates that 15% to 20% of the global population includes people with disability of all kinds—from sensory to developmental, cognitive, physical, and psychological disabilities. These estimates signal that people with disability comprise the largest minority group on the planet. However, because disability is not confined to specific national or ethnic groups and as the experiences of people with disability vary greatly in their diversity, few take note of their minority status or the widespread discriminations and abuse that they endure. These discriminations include failures on the part of their local communities to ensure that they have access to the common goods of education, healthcare, employment, recreation, and the freedoms associated with religious faith and practice. With this global prevalence of disability none of us should be surprised to encounter persons with disability in all public venues and yet, those encounters are likely few and far between in the contexts of daily commerce among the dominant able-bodied/able-minded.
Unfortunately, many people with disability have been and continue to be excluded from general human commerce. In this day and time, how are we to account for this exclusion? While the days of institutionalizing people with all kinds of disability is nearing an end, many people with disability remain shuttered in their homes for lack of friendship as much as for a lack of access to basic health and nutrition, schools, playgrounds, jobs, and churches.
In addition to these exclusions, with exceptions, people with disability have not been treated well. But as the prophesied recipients of God’s reversal of oppressions, I wonder, why must they wait for justice? Given the lessons we have learned from contemporary retrievals of the historical experiences of many members of minority populations across the globe but especially in the contexts of enslavement, the oppression of people with disability can neither be tolerated any more.
This call to action will need also to be extended and deepened insofar as advocacy and friendship with people with disability is more than solidarity alone provides. For example, if the giving epitomized is offered in one direction only, that is, from the nondisabled toward people with disability, then the nondisabled continue to hold the upper hand where giving and receiving are concerned, thereby maintaining a paternalistic status quo. Indeed, where anyone is absent or excluded from our assemblies, it is there that our joy will be incomplete: all are all called to something different, that is, through the joy in the world as a whole that may only be realized when inclusion prevails.
So, I invite you to return to Isaiah, who today summons us to imperative action with those who are oppressed and marginalized and, since here they are named explicitly, an imperative especially with and for those who are marginalized on account of disability. As Isaiah, the Psalmist, and Jesus enjoin: I, you, and all God’s people are commanded to “Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, [and] say to those whose hearts are frightened [to those who are oppressed]: Be strong, fear not!” (Is 35:4). Nevertheless, I wonder, how are we today to respond to this command in preferential solidarity and in material, communal, and spiritual support with and for those who are bowed low as a result of the nondisabled assumptions about where, when, and with whom people with disability can participate in the commonweal? In the meantime, as we all await the Parousia and with God’s help, the great reversal of fortunes for those who are oppressed depends, perhaps in large part, upon us. God does indeed show us the way even as this Sunday we anticipate the solemn Nativity of Emmanuel—God (still and always) with us.
God calls each of us by our names in grace and each of us is called to discover these sacred names and to rejoice in them. As Isaiah prophesied, the Psalmist sang, and Jesus himself proclaimed: then we who will be ransomed from our own foibles and our own failures to meet the demands of solidarity “will return and enter Zion singing [and] crowned with everlasting joy” (Is 35:10). This rejoicing goes beyond the limits that the nondisabled have imposed upon people with disability and deepens gaudeo to celebrate each of us, named and graced equally by God.
So, with anticipatory delight, let us sing with the saints and angels in heaven and in our midst: “Rejoice [with me], rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you O Israel.”
Background art by John August Swanson:
Top, left to right - "Good Samaritan" (2002); "Orchestra" (1979)
Bottom, left to right- "Work Against Climate Change" (2019); "By Your Spirit" (2014); "When I Stand, I Pray" (2014)
Mary Jo Iozzio
Mary Jo Iozzio, Ph.D., earned her doctorate in Systematic Theology with a focus on Moral Theology (1994) and an MA in the History of Religions, Fordham University (1984); an MA in Biblical Studies, Providence College (1987); a BA in History, Pennsylvania State University (1977). She recently earned the License in Sacred Theology-STL with a focus on disability from Boston College (2019).
Mary Jo has been at the STM since 2013. She was Professor of Moral Theology at Barry University, Miami Shores, FL (1993-2013), and adjunct instructor at Fordham University, Providence College, and the University of Rhode Island. She was formed by both religious and secular education systems: the Dominican Sisters of Newburgh, NY, who ran St. Mary School, and John F. Kennedy P.H.S. in Paterson, NJ. Her personal and professional life have been marked —happily she adds—by the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Benedictines (whose monks welcomed her into their daily life at the Abbaye du Mont Cesar/Abdij Keizersberg, Leuven, Belgium).
She is the Series Editor of Content and Context in Theological Ethics, published by Palgrave Macmillan; Coordinator of and Contributor to the North American Forum of The First (newsletter of the Catholic Theological Ethicists in the World Church); past Co-Editor of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics; and guest editor of the Journal of Religion, Disability and Health; and guest editor of the Journal of Moral Theology.
She served as inaugural member on the American Academy of Religion, Committee on the Status of People with Disabilities in the Profession and now serves as co-chair of its Religion and Disability Studies Group; as a public member on the American Board of Plastic Surgery, Board of Directors. She served in the past as a member of the Bon Secours Health System Inc, Ethics Advisory Group; a member of the Board of the Catholic Theological Society of America; a member of the Board of the Society of Christian Ethics and the SCE's Professional Conduct Committee.
Mary Jo lives in West Roxbury, MA with her two companion beagle-mix dogs: Maynard and Melrose.
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