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Family with a son with Down syndrome praying together

Perfecting Praise: Disability and Prayer

January 4, 2024


I had the privilege of speaking during one of the break-out sessions at the Good News Conference in November. It was a great event that drew almost one thousand people to Orlando, Florida, for a weekend of phenomenal speakers talking around the theme of witness. I was asked to speak about the witness of persons living with disabilities in the Church during one of the breakout sessions. 

I was up early the morning before I spoke, and as I prayed the Psalms of Matins (what we typically call the Office of Readings), I noticed something in one of my favorite Psalms I hadn’t noticed in the past. I’m referring to Psalm 8 and this beautiful text:

For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded. What is man that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour.

There is so much to contemplate in those words, especially in the context of disability. God is not selective in imparting dignity upon his creation. Yes, disabled persons are also made “a little less than the angels” and crowned with glory and honor. This text never fails to fill me with wonder and gratitude for the gift of our place in God’s glorious creation. But somehow I have always overlooked the verse that precedes these words:

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings 
Thou hast perfected praise
because of thine enemies,
that thou mayest destroy the enemy and the avenger. 

Some translations obscure the meaning here, so I’ve provided the Douay-Rheims translation since it is a more literal translation of the Latin Vulgate text. The Psalmist is writing that prayer of the young is powerful and purposeful in our supernatural struggle against evil.

The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not one who believes, as some do, that all persons with intellectual disabilities have a special identification with the Holy Innocents. I’m considering “babes and sucklings” more in an allegorical sense as being those who are closer to God by the purity of their hearts, or by being made pure by the suffering they endure. As St. James wrote, “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (James 5:16).

I believe that persons living with disabilities have particular gifts to bring to the Church. They have a unique witness in the Body of Christ, and Scripture repeatedly tells us of God’s solicitousness of them. In the case of the intellectually impaired, the efficacy of their prayers may indeed be from the purity of their hearts. For those with other impairments, whether they be physical, emotional, or psychological, suffering can be an occasion of grace that brings them closer to the heart of God. 

St. John Paul II begins his beautiful encyclical letter on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, with the words of St. Paul to the Colossians in which he writes, “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). St. Paul “rejoices” in his suffering because he knows it has a salvific purpose when offered to the Father in union with the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. 

With that consideration, it has been my desire since I began this fellowship at the beginning of 2023 to create an online prayer community of those living with disabilities. I intend, with your help, to do just that as we enter into the new year of grace, 2024. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this could grow into regional or national retreat gatherings for families! And, perhaps, if it is God’s will, someday inspire a religious community like Le Petites Soeurs Disciples de l’Agneau or the Fraternité Notre Dame de l’Etoile in France. 

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But we will start simply and ask for God’s blessing. We will meet online once a month and pray together in whatever way is comfortable and possible for those involved. We will offer our prayers primarily for the conversion of our Lord’s “enemies,” for peace in our troubled world, for the protection of the unborn, and for all those who have left the Catholic faith. All who participate will also be invited to add their own intentions. We will begin by praying together for no more than a half-hour. If we discover that we want more prayer time together, we will go for as long as the interest and prayer continues. Those who are non-speaking are welcome to join us, too, and communicate however works best for them. 

Our prayer time will be informal. We may begin with a short reading from Scripture, an invitation to add intentions to our prayer, followed by prayers everyone knows and any extemporaneous prayer that any individual feels they want to contribute. 

Our goal is simple: to be witnesses of God’s goodness and to offer intercessory prayer for our troubled world from the sincerity of the hearts of those who love him. 

Please help spread the word to any you know among your family, friends, and people in your parishes that have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Ask them to contact me by email at [email protected], and I will be back in touch with the date of our first meeting and how to join in. 

Happy New Year, and please pray for the success of this new ministry within Word on Fire.