Word on Fire to fight the ‘hidden genocide’ of Down syndrome, people with disabilities

ROME – Henri Nouwen, the famous Dutch priest and spiritual writer, who spent the last 10 years of his life in a L’Arche community twinned with a member with profound developmental disabilities named Adam, once said that the real compassion is not a sentimental walk in the park.

“Compassion is difficult because it requires an inner disposition to go with others where they are weak, vulnerable, alone and broken,” he said. “But it’s not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we most desire is to end suffering by running away from it or finding a quick remedy for it.


Today, another force in the Catholic Church is preparing to meet these compassionate challenges: Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester and his Word on Fire Institute.

Recently, the Word on Fire Institute announced the creation of a new “Venerable Jerome Lejune Fellowship,” designed to advocate for people with cognitive and developmental disabilities, especially those with Down syndrome. It is named after a French pediatrician and geneticist known for discovering the genetic roots of Down syndrome, who was also an ardent Catholic and is currently a candidate for sainthood.

Word on Fire is the ministry Barron created in 2000 to promote cultural evangelism, especially in the digital realm, and his institute sponsors a wide variety of classes, webinars, films, community discussions, live events, and other activities. . (Full disclosure: I hold the “St. Francis de Sales Fellowship in Communications and Media” at the Word on Fire Institute.)

Currently, Word on Fire is seeking applicants for the new scholarship, with the understanding that one of the responsibilities of whoever is hired will be to identify a person with an intellectual and/or developmental disability to become the second Lejune Scholar.

Barron credited Father Steve Grunow, the CEO of Word on Fire, with the idea.

“For a long time, [Grunow] expressed concern that WOF is creating and providing catechesis and evangelism resources for those with cognitive or developmental disabilities,” Barron said. Node. “He strongly believes that people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities should be prepared for evangelism and mission on behalf of the church, and that their testimony to the Lord Jesus is a gift the church has underestimated for far too long. valued and not valued.”

“I believe it too,” Barron said.

Recent media coverage has highlighted how the increasing use of prenatal testing has led to a widespread trend of aborting unborn children diagnosed with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Iceland is the emblematic case; Since prenatal screening became nearly universal in the early 2000s, the vast majority of women whose children have been reported for Down syndrome have chosen to have an abortion, almost 100%.

A piece from December 2020 in the Atlantic which examined the data was titled “The Last Down Syndrome Children”.

Barron said these trends help explain the “why now?” of the new scholarship.

“We would like a person with Down syndrome to serve as a public witness to the reality of this hidden genocide through abortion and the targeting of a population of people who have died simply because some have come to believe that the life of a person with Down syndrome or with cognitive and intellectual disability are not worth living for,” he said.

“How this targeting of a vulnerable population is not considered a covert exercise in eugenics is beyond me,” Barron said. “It was allowed to fester and grow because people with intellectual and cognitive disabilities were not given adequate visibility and a voice of their own. The church should take responsibility and leadership regarding this definitely pro-life issue.

With regard to the Church’s approach, there has long been a debate about the participation of people with intellectual disabilities in the sacraments. Traditionally, Catholic theology has held that to receive the Eucharist one must share the beliefs of the Church about the nature of the sacrament, which presupposes a certain minimum cognitive capacity.

Recently, however, there has been strong pressure to include people with intellectual disabilities in sacramental life. In June 2019, the Vatican issued a new set of guidelines for catechesis insisting, among other things, that the sacraments of the Church are a gift and cannot be withheld from people with disabilities.

Later that year, Pope Francis issued a message calling for the “active participation” of people with disabilities.

“Above all, I strongly reaffirm the right of people with disabilities to receive the sacraments, like all other members of the church,” he said.

Barron said this issue will also be front and center for the new fraternity.

“I believe that people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities should be recognized as having a profound ability to internalize and express their faith, be respected in terms of their ability to make decisions, and be treated as full participants in life and mission of the Church,” he said.

Barron said his team knows they don’t have to reinvent the wheel, as there are other groups with long experience in the field ranging from L’Arche to religious orders such as the Little Sisters, Disciples of the Lamb in France, the only community in the world known to invite women with Down syndrome to enter religious life as full members of a religious institute.

“Of course, we will seek to build on previous efforts and partner as much as possible with existing initiatives, both church and secular,” he said. “But before we do that, we have some builds that we have to do ourselves.”

“I will be very mindful of this fellowship, as I believe its mission is absolutely essential to Word on Fire’s evangelistic work,” Barron said.

Anyone seeking more information on the new Lejune Scholarship, or who would like to apply, can visit the Word on Fire careers page.

Barry F. Howard