On 3 December, we mark International Day for People with Disabilities, a day to increase public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disability. Jesuit priest Fr Justin Glyn has firsthand experience of living with a disability. Legally blind since birth, Fr Justin sees life through ‘a fuzzy blur’. He needs telescopes attached to his eyeglasses to help focus on small areas and uses a walking cane to help him get around. But his disability, though obvious, is not the whole story.

Fr Justin’s life experience is as rich and diverse as the next person's: he feels a range of emotions; is able to do some things, and not others; loves and is loved; and desires to make a valuable contribution to the world. Fr Justin also wants to give voice to people with disabilities in the Church, to ensure that everyone has a role and is included. It is this advocacy work that saw him travel to Rome in September to help shape a document for the upcoming Synod on Synodality—a document that shares the voices, experiences and desires of people with disabilities in the Church.

Born in Windhoek, Namibia, Fr Justin grew up in Cape Town and Durban, South Africa. He studied and practised law in Durban and Johannesburg and, at 26, moved to New Zealand with his family. There, he continued his legal work, first as a barrister focussing on administrative, immigration and refugee law and then in a large commercial firm doing corporate law. He completed a doctorate in immigration and refugee law in 2008, having been inspired by his work in New Zealand with refugees.

He felt called to the priesthood from a young age and had wanted to become a priest after leaving high school. ‘Wisely, one of the Mariannhill fathers in Durban, where I was living, said, “Look, you really need to know something about the world first. So don’t think about that until a bit later”,’ explains Fr Justin. ‘I was saddened at the time, but in retrospect it was clearly the right call.’

The call to priesthood remained, however, and throughout his university and working years, he felt drawn to Ignatian spirituality. Fr Justin was influenced by Jesuit poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Southwell, and Jesuit palaeontologist, mystic and writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He entered the two-year novitiate in 2009, aged 36, and then undertook studies in philosophy and theology. He was ordained a Catholic priest for the Jesuits in his family’s hometown of Auckland in 2016.

Following ordination, he was sent to Canada for two years to train as a canon lawyer, and is now based in Melbourne, serving as the in-house General Counsel for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus (practising both civil and canon law) since mid-2018.

As well as his interest in law and assisting refugees, Fr Justin has always loved languages—he speaks fluent English, Afrikaans, Russian and German, and has a basic reading knowledge of New Testament Greek and Hebrew. He’s currently learning Italian and Mandarin. He is a writer and has been the author of numerous articles that promote the dignity and shared humanity of all within the body of Christ. In 2019, he authored ‘Us’ not ‘Them’: Disability and Catholic Theology and Social Teaching, for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Social Justice series.

Giving voice to people with disabilities in the Church

Having read some of Fr Justin’s writings, Vittorio Scelzo—who oversees the work of the Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life on the care of people with disabilities—invited him to be part of its #IamChurch campaign in 2021. The men and women who participated in this campaign were then invited, with others, to take part in a Zoom consultation organised by the Dicastery in May this year, which included Fr Justin. During this discussion, 30 Catholics with various disabilities shared their experience of life in the Church and were then invited to write submissions for consideration at the upcoming Synod.

‘I’m quite inspired by the Dicastery,’ says Fr Justin. ‘They said, “Let’s hear from disabled Catholics from around the world since nobody else seems to be asking the questions.” We were all invited to submit submissions based on a series of guided questions on what we thought needed to happen in the Church, what we’d like the Synod to know about disability and the world of people with disability, and our role in the Church.’

Fr Justin was ‘thrilled’ to receive an email from the Dicastery asking him to be part of the small team to help finalise the submissions in Rome in September. The team of five included a deaf catechist from Mexico, a religious sister with Down syndrome from France, an Italian wheelchair user involved in the Comunità di Sant’Egidio, a Spanish activist in a wheelchair, and Fr Justin, a legally blind priest from New Zealand.

The resulting document, The Church is our Home, which was given to Pope Francis, is one of the many working documents for the upcoming Synod, and pulls together the variety of voices of Catholics with disabilities from across the world. They have shared their experiences, desires and reflections on how the Church can deepen its understanding, correct some misperceptions and misunderstandings and, ultimately, make some much-needed changes to ensure all are welcome and have a role to play in the Church.

The significant thing about this is that it’s the first Church-sponsored document about disability written by people who actually are disabled.

The first section, titled ‘We exist’, points out that more than a billion people in the world live with a physical, organic, sensory, cognitive (intellectual) or mental disability. ‘We make up about 15 per cent of the world’s population—that’s a huge number,’ he says.

‘The issues that came up were broad, including the Church’s theology of disability. But more specific issues arose, particularly for people with intellectual disabilities, such as “We’re being denied access to the sacraments. Aren’t we Catholics just like everybody else?” to people with albinism saying, “We’re being killed in Africa and elsewhere, because of who we are”, to places as diverse as South America and Africa, where people are accused of being witches because they’re disabled. We in the West can’t be complacent about this. Until 1983, the Code of Canon Law 1917 basically equated epilepsy with demonic possession, and a barrier to priesthood. To this day, the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes disabled people’s lives as diminished (§ 2276), and a Church document in 2000 described the image of God as “dimmed” in people with a disability.’

In his own life, Fr Justin has experienced a ‘mixed bag’ of reactions to his ‘obvious disability’. His condition, nystagmus, is the result of brain tissue not fully developing, which causes pressure on the optic nerve. His eyes ‘jump around’ and are not able to focus. He explains, ‘I’ve seen moments of great kindness from people around me, and I’ve found great support in my religious community, but elsewhere, I’ve also experienced misunderstanding and physical abuse.’

‘There’ve been people who’ve come up and tried to rip the glasses off my face and tell me that I need to pray to Jesus and I’ll be healed. I’ve had the stares. And certainly, in the broader society, I’ve been spat at and hit on the streets because I look obviously different.

‘There was a lady who watched me doing street collection for a school in South Africa, and she said to the person next to me, “Poor blind kid, what does he do all day?” I said, “He practices law.” I could hear her jaw drop.’

We’re all Church together

Some of the key themes and recommendations in The Church is our Home document are around perspective, and about remembering our shared humanity, according to Fr Justin. ‘They’re about being aware that we are not “that group over there to be helped, but we are actually all people who are working together as Church,’ he says.

‘It works from the level that everybody—those in the pews, parish councils, priests, finance councils, officials in dioceses—realises that we are all “us” and that we all have a contribution to make.

‘And some of this is about the misunderstanding of disabled people as “those less fortunate” or “those other”, and the thing is, we are not “other”.

All of us are limited in one way or another, but in some people it’s just more obvious. This is the human condition because we are not God.

Fr Justin emphasises the importance of accessibility. ‘People with disabilities had often been regarded as objects of charity, rather than [acknowledging] the fact that all of us are humans, and yet not all of us are accommodated by our society, which is built to include some and not others.

‘Churches should be accessible. Sacraments should be accessible. That might mean things like quiet, low-stimulus Masses to accommodate people with autism and other neurodivergence. It might mean something as simple as putting a ramp in to make sure people can get there.

‘Humanity is essentially good, but the first stage in repentance is acknowledgement that there’s a problem, and documents like [The Church is our Home] bring to light questions of what are we doing? How is it that we make our churches, both in the physical sense and in the sense of community, places where all are welcome? How is welcome made visible, audible, tangible at the level of the people who gather after Mass for tea? You don’t need a theology degree to smile and make somebody welcome and help make sure they can get up the stairs (or that there’s a ramp if this can’t happen) or they can walk, or they can get help to receive the sacraments, or even that they can get to church or that the sacraments can be brought to them.

‘It’s about making the accommodations that allow people to be part of the body of Christ and be understood to be such, rather than paying lip service to inclusion,’ says Fr Justin. ‘We are all part of the body of Christ. And to the extent that we cut off any part of that, we lose. We’re all Church together.’

Fr Justin Glyn SJ. Photo by Fiona Basile

All are encouraged to read The Church is our Home and to work towards ensuring our parish communities are accessible and welcoming for all in the life of the Church.