One of the signs that Nazi Germany was going down a poisonous road was the campaign to rid the country of its disabled citizens. They were deemed to be a 'drain' on resources. In addition they were considered to be of poor genetic stock, which eugenicists wanted to be neutralised. Eugenics believes that we can ‘breed’ an improved human race, rather like the breeding of cattle. And so, in the late 1930s, many of the German disabled were quietly put to death. It couldn't happen again, of course. And yet … many countries have abortion.
One of the side-effects of easy abortion is a prejudice towards disability. If disability is detected in the womb, there is the suggestion that the child should be eliminated. I wonder what this says about our attitude to people with disabilities? Does it say we would rather they were not among us? More generally, many countries prefer an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to the disabled. They are cared for well enough, but they are out of the mainstream.
God invites us to a different approach. A sign of God's presence would be, as the first reading reminds us, the disabled making their presence felt (Isa. 35.4-7). God is on their side. The responsorial psalm today (Ps 145) stresses that God is the vindicator of the poor and disabled, their champion in a world that would hustle them to the margins of society. This theme is found in the second reading too, where we find that to flatter the rich and dismiss the poor is to invert God's priorities: 'It is those who are poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be heirs to the kingdom' (James 2.5). Snobbery and disdain are common vices; most of us have sinned in this way at some time.
An integrated society would be a sign of the kingdom. A world in which disabled people feel at home, where the vulnerable are protected. You can glimpse this at Lourdes. The disabled and ill are not pitied there, they are not on the fringe of society, but at the heart of it. This is surely a sign that the saving purpose of God was being fulfilled, a sign, in fact, that the Messiah was at work. Hence in the gospel today (Mark 7.31-37) Jesus in healing the deaf man takes him away from the crowd. The disabled are not to be a peep show. They too have their dignity.
As we look around us today, we know, realistically, that not every illness or disability will be cured. But we can strive to create a world in which each person's dignity is respected, and there is a place for all. The Paralympic Games shows us the possibilities that this opens up not just for them but for all of us. A world in which the disabled are not only helped, but through their striving, their courage, their perseverance, become an example to us all.
Fr Terry Tastard is Parish Priest of St Mary's, East Finchley, in north London.