Message by Bishop Joseph Galea-Curmi

In a few days’ time, we will mark the first anniversary of the Apostolic Visit of Pope Francis to Malta. It was the last visit to a foreign country where he walked without an aid, though at times with difficulty. After his visit to Malta in April 2022, the Pope was first seen publicly in a wheelchair in May with an assistant pushing it. Now he sometimes walks with a cane, but he uses the chair for longer distances. 

Pope Francis is still adjusting to a life that many persons with a disability are accustomed to. It is a challenge, but it is a grounded gesture that has a strong message for all of us. The sight of a wheelchair-using Pope should be a powerful teaching moment in a culture that often creates obstacles for persons with a disability.

Many people with a disability have praised the Pope’s decision to use a wheelchair, while other world leaders have gone to significant lengths to avoid being seen in one. There is a mistaken perception in society that physical weakness implies moral or leadership weakness. In fact, it seems there was an increase in rumours that Francis was considering resigning the papacy as his knee pain grew worse and he began using a wheelchair. However, in an interview to the Spanish daily ABC, he pointed out that “you govern with your head not with your knee”.

Francis has often spoken against today’s “throwaway culture”, which marginalises disabled people. In his annual message for the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities in December last year, Francis wrote: “We come to realize that we exist as an us and not a them whenever disability, whether temporary or due to natural aging, affects ourselves or someone for whom we care. Then we begin to look at reality with new eyes and we see the need to break down even those barriers that at first seemed insignificant.” He emphasised: “No disability – temporary, acquired or permanent – can change the fact that we are all children of the one Father and enjoy the same dignity”. 

In this message, the Pope spoke of a “magisterium of fragility”. He said that this would make society more humane and fraternal: “This magisterium of fragility is a charism by which you – dear sisters and brothers with disabilities – can enrich the Church. Your presence may help transform the actual situations in which we live, making them more human and more welcoming. Without vulnerability, without limits, without obstacles to overcome, there would be no true humanity”.

It is interesting to note that until 1978, popes used to be carried on shoulders on a richly-adorned ceremonial throne, the sedia gestatoria. Pope John Paul I initially declined to use the throne carried on shoulders but was eventually convinced that it was necessary to make him visible to the crowds. He was the last Pope to use it. Pope John Paul II discontinued the use of the throne. 

The sedia gestatoria gave a perception of power, and portrayed the Pope as someone above the rest of the people; the wheelchair shows the Pope as being one with the people, and especially with those experiencing disability and dependency. For Pope Francis, it has become the new redefined sedia gestatoria.

✠ Joseph Galea-Curmi 
    Auxiliary Bishop of Malta

This article was first published on The Sunday Times of Malta