Catholic events in England focus on disability in sports

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Attendees listen to a talk during the Everybody has a place conference on Disability, Sport, and Theology. Credit: Mazur/

Ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games, the Catholic Church in England and Wales has sponsored an international conference and a national day dedicated to disability to explore and celebrate the gifts all people can share, especially in sports.

On July 8 the Catholic Church in England and Wales observed a national day called “Now is the time to be friends.” The day’s events at the Carmelite Aylesford Priory in Kent included sports, arts, music, prayer and the celebration of Mass. Hundreds of people attended the events, most of which were led by people with disabilities.

The Mass was presided over by Bishop John Hine, who spoke in his homily about the need to recognize that Christ is present and should be honored in one’s neighbor.

One wheelchair-bound woman said that both the national day and the conference has helped her understand God’s desires for her life.

“I know He wants to teach me about nurturing, honoring, celebrating and sharing the body He has gifted to me,” she said. “Even in the last few days, this new understanding has given rise to a willingness to risk giving up my pride, my self-sufficiency, and my envy, and to share more honestly and vulnerably with my friends and with God all my hopes, my fears and my dreams.

She said she now plans to join a local gym.

The role of disability in Christianity was a focus of the central London conference, titled “Everybody has a place.” It drew 160 people including those with disabilities and their families, professional staff, academics, clergy and religious.

Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark opened the July 2 conference at Westminster Central Hall in London.

Knights of Columbus representatives told attendees about the organization’s work in Haiti with physically disabled people and its sponsorship of the Haitian amputee group of soccer players, Team Zaryen.

The fraternal organization also premiered its film “Healing Haiti’s Children,” which shows how soccer can help disabled adults and children in Haiti regain social status in a place where disability has previously carried social stigma.

Prof. John Swinton of the University of Aberdeen served as the conference’s keynote speaker. He said that being true to the Gospel means ensuring that “everyone has a place where they belong and are not merely included, where they are welcome at the heart of a community, where they are appreciated and deeply missed when not present.”

Presenters included Andy Reed of the Special Olympics Association, Paralympian Stefanie Read, and Baroness Shelia Hollins.

The Baptist Missionary Society also showed an excerpt of its Paralympic resource “Undefeated.”

Cristina Gangemi, a disability consultant to the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said that the Paralympics “shows us what Christ asks all of us to do ... to see a person regardless of their human form in all its potential and placing that person into a society in which the disability disappears.”

She said the Paralympics echo Pope John Paul II’s dedication to the theology of the body and his dedication to sport.

The Paralympic Games for disabled athletes will take place in London from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9.

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