Persons with disabilities teach lessons of joy


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SYDNEY, Australia, DEC. 3, 2009 ( If carrying the cross of a disability is always a challenge, carrying it in the midst of a region marked by conflict is even more so.

But according to Father James McCarthy, an Australian priest who volunteered as a chaplain for a camp in Lebanon for persons with mental and/or physical disabilities, it's a cross that is accompanied by an "astonishing" joy.

The 27-year-old priest -- a student at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Archdiocese of Sydney's youngest priest -- spoke with L'Osservatore Romano of his experience with "Project Lebanon." The project is sponsored by the Order of Malta and its humanitarian aid agency, Malteser International.

He said the individuals with whom he worked "possess beaming smiles, joy and love which many in our world would envy" despite having "suffered greatly, with some being abandoned shortly after birth, and others having experienced mistreatment, neglect or war-related violence."

From July to September, some 100 youth from across Europe volunteer with the project, which consists of six summer camps, each lasting for seven days. The camps are conducted in a specially constructed handicap-accessible center, some 65 kilometers (40 miles) outside of Beirut.

The center welcomes 35 mentally and physically disabled young people at each camp. These young people -- guests -- come from Lebanon's major mental health institutions.

Father McCarthy explained how each guest is "assigned to a volunteer and thereby receives one-to-one hospitality, care and friendship."

And each camp program includes daily Mass, spiritual activities, the sacrament of anointing of the sick and religious processions. The camp program is supported by European-based volunteer doctors and medical staff, who treat and assist the guests, and occasionally the volunteers.

Language of love

Father McCarthy recalled: "Although Arabic is the first language for most of the guests, the volunteers communicate primarily with the language of love and friendship, as many of the guests are unable to adequately speak any language with fluency. For one particular guest, almost every phrase he spoke consisted of 'Jesus loves me' in Arabic. Despite language difficulties, communication is possible and many of the guests show joyful responses, gratitude and a zeal for life."

The Australian priest suggested that the "disabled in Lebanon have, as some might believe, very few reasons to be joyful or at peace. Nevertheless, their simplicity and child-like desire for friendship inspire the volunteers to change their own lives and their own priorities."

God in our midst

The chaplain recounted the testimony of one man with Down syndrome and other medical, physical and psychological disabilities.

"Tony was almost 40 but his cognitive ability was equivalent to that of a seven or eight year old," Father McCarthy explained. "At every meal he would reserve the seat next to him for me and even refused to eat unless his friend, the priest, was sitting next to him. [...] Tony was a man who found joy in serving and helping others. As the camp progressed, Tony became more and more interested in following my daily activities. A decision was made to invite Tony to serve at the camp religious celebrations.
"It was a blessing for everyone at the camp to see the joy on Tony's face when he served Mass, carried the cross in processions, and assisted at the altar. Other guests and volunteers were edified by his reverence, devotion and prayerfulness. By the end of the week, Tony was so enthusiastic that he even acted as a sacristan, remarkable for someone with severe disabilities, but he quickly learned by simply following the example of others.

"For Tony, the volunteers and chaplains were signs of God's love and protection. For the volunteer and chaplains, Tony was a sign of God in our midst. He wanted to be of service to others, not merely the recipient of service."

Gifts for the world

Father McCarthy reflected how disabled persons have particular gifts for the world.

"Every life has a value," he affirmed, "and the disabled have the ability to uniquely demonstrate the value of friendship, joyfulness, gratitude and service."

The priest said Project Lebanon gives the chance for disabled persons to form volunteers in God's love.

He concluded, "The readiness to peacefully smile, to offer friendship, to give unconditionally, and to have a genuine gratitude and desire to live life to the full are among the gifts which the disabled offer to our world."