Monsignor Michael Boland

Challenging attitudes on disabilities

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

As we approach warmer weather, I am reminded about a wonderful act of Pope Francis last summer — he paid to rent a small beach near Rome so that people with disabilities could enjoy the sun and sea.

Annually organized by a local charity group, the beach is equipped with boardwalks, ramps and water access vehicles. According to the group’s website, the goal of the beach, which is open to sunseekers of all abilities, is to be a “place without mental or architectural barriers, where everyone can enjoy the sea together.” 

Pope Francis paying for the beach called attention to an issue that has become a passion for him: challenging our attitudes about people with disabilities, and ensuring that people of all abilities are considered and included in all aspects of life, especially the life of the church. He reminds us that each person has unique gifts and talents to share with the community, and we must ensure that our minds, our hearts and our physical surroundings are able to receive all of these important gifts. 

The pope’s vision of a more inclusive church echoes a beautiful campaign started more than 20 years ago by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and his good friend and theologian, Father Henri Nouwen, called “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors.” The goal of this campaign has been to make parishes places of access, welcome and inclusion by removing psychological and architectural barriers that prevent all people from being full participants in the church. 

Over the years, “Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors” has made great strides. But now, with the vigorous enthusiasm and media attention of Pope Francis, we have a renewed opportunity to make lasting changes in how we think about people with disabilities.  

As we watch Pope Francis joyfully reach out and interact with a boy with cerebral palsy, a young woman with Down syndrome or the elderly and infirm, maybe we too can overcome our discomfort in these situations. Maybe Pope Francis can give us the courage to also reach out, ensuring that no one feels isolated or “other-ized,” and allow ourselves to benefit from the gifts that they bring to God’s altar.  

As director of human services for the Archdiocese of Chicago, I have the privilege to oversee the Office with Persons with Disabilities, which brings together a number of ministries including the Archdiocesan Commission on Mental Illness, Misericordia Home, the Office of the Deaf, Spred (Special Religious Development) and Inclusion in Worship. The goal of the office is to support parishes and families in the archdiocese to ensure that all are welcome, and that people of all abilities are included in the life of the church in Chicago. 

We recently renamed this office from the “Office for Persons with Disabilities” to the “Office with Persons with Disabilities.” The change highlights a shift in thinking that we need to do things “for” people with disabilities, to instead showing that we are walking “with” our brothers and sisters, and making sure they have the opportunity to fully develop and share their unique gifts and abilities.  

It is the difference between seeing a ramp as an accommodation “for” people with disabilities, to seeing the ramp as a necessary part of the church so that everyone can benefit from the participation of all members of the parish. It is the difference between seeing persons with disabilities, who may look or act differently than we do, as separate from us, to embracing their differences as part of their God-given human dignity and becoming comfortable with them so that we can provide an atmosphere of authentic welcome.   

Just as the beach near Rome is made accessible to sunseekers of all abilities to enjoy together, let us open our minds, our hearts and our doors to parishioners of all abilities so that we may enjoy God’s endless glory — together. 

For information, visit or call 312-401-1754.


  • disabilities