Pope Francis greets endurance athlete Michael Haddad at the general audience in the San Damaso Courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, June 2, 2021./ Vatican Media.
Pope Francis yesterday met with a paralyzed man who plans to travel to the Arctic Circle to raise awareness about the environment.
After a spinal cord injury from a jet ski accident left Michael Haddad paralyzed from the chest down, he was told that he would never walk again.
But the athlete and adventurer from Lebanon has found a way not only to walk but also to journey more than 60 miles in the Arctic Circle using steel spine and orthotic leg braces.
Haddad greeted Pope Francis at the June 2 general audience and asked him to bless his Arctic mission, which he is undertaking with a team of scientists as a United Nations goodwill ambassador for the environment.
“When I told my story to the Holy Father, he put his hand on my head. I told him that we try to bring a message of humanity, in favor of the earth and the environment. He blessed me and I said: ‘Father, pray for me,’” Haddad told Vatican News after the encounter.
“‘Pray for me at the North Pole,’ he replied. I can’t get this sentence out of my head. It gave me strength and much food for thought. I feel more committed, no longer alone, but together with the pope to try to make this change.”
Haddad plans to make his Arctic trek in February or March 2022 after it was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He has already walked the Pyramids of Giza plateau, scaled the Raouche Rock in Beirut, snowshoed the Black Summit, and completed two marathons using exoskeleton technology.
“As a person unable to walk, stand up and sit on their own, I decided to explore my potential. I have found that nothing is impossible,” he said.
“This is thanks to two things: faith and determination. Faith in our Creator, faith in ourselves. Determination, in the certainty that within us there are unlimited powers to go forward and break every wall,” he said.
He has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Program since 2019 advocating to protect the environment because, he said, “the earth is in a wheelchair.”
“Traveling 100 kilometres in the North Pole is not just a message, but a contribution to science,” he explained.
“I work with a large scientific team and have been considered one of the few people in the world capable of doing such a thing in my condition. So everything we are planning before, during, and after this walk will contribute to scientific research to help other people walk through new systems again.”
Haddad, a Christian, gave the pope a branch of a cedar tree, a biblical symbol of Lebanon, and a photo of a church in an old cedar forest.
“The wood of those cedars has been connected to the earth for 10,000 years. So there is a double meaning: history and man’s close connection to the planet. We lived in the forests, it is time to remind us because without a healthy planet there is no healthy humanity. We must send this message to the world,” he said.