Just this morning, I came across a story written by Paul Gondreau, a theology professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. He and his family happened to be in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on Easter Sunday and were present when Pope Francis toured the Square in his popemobile. The picture you see here is of the pope embracing Gondreau’s eight-year-old son, Dominic, who has Cerebral Palsy.
It was a moving sight, and it made its way to the Internet and numerous news outlets around the world. (Not unlike his first popemobile ride, when he also had the car stopped so that he could give a special embrace to a disabled man in the crowd.)
In so many ways, the picture speaks for itself. But Gondreau’s brief article on the event makes a couple of moving and important points.
First, he relates a comment that a woman in the Square made to his wife afterward: “You know, your son is here to show people how to love.” Gondreau talks about how this comment turns our everyday thinking on its head. Parents of children with disabilities are called to give more than the usual amount to their kids: more help, more guidance, more advocacy, more money, more time, more therapy, more of everything. And we often focus on all that we have to do or all that we have to give. But what Pope Francis highlighted—and what Gondreau picked up on—was how much our children give to us. While we’re busy giving our children all they need, they are busy giving us huge lessons in what it means to love. They’re teaching us how to give and give and give—not by demanding it of us but by drawing it out of us. Just as Jesus gave himself for us not because we stormed heaven and demanded our rights but because his heart warmed at the sight of us, and he couldn’t help but become one of us and share in our pain and need.
Second, by framing the whole thing in terms of a vocation, Gondreau finds a way to answer the “why” question that every parent of a special-needs kid asks. Why did this happen? Why him and not someone else? What did he (or we) do to deserve this? In my very first post on this blog, I wrote that asking “how” is far more helpful than asking “why.” Well, I’m not so sure any more. I think you need to be working on the “why” if you want to know “how.” And to say that it happened because God wanted more professors in the art of love is clearly one very encouraging, hope-filled answer.
Of course, that raises the possibility that God actually gave your child autism or cerebral palsy or some other genetic disorder. In fact, it almost pushes you toward that kind of conclusion. I don’t want to get into that really thorny question here (perhaps later), but my own experience tells me that when I look upon my kids—specifically with their challenges and disabilities—as God’s gracious gift to me and to the world, my heart softens. I find more patience, more peace, and a renewed willingness to fight for them. I find myself, too, looking upon other people—especially those who don’t get my kids—with more kindness and compassion. Bitterness recedes, and fear diminishes. Hope grows, along with a little more wisdom and clarity on how to proceed through each challenge that we face.
Early in his article, Gondreau referred to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who talked about performing “small acts with great love.” That’s one way into this vocation. But I like another saying of hers even more. She called it the “Five-Fingered Gospel.” Carefully counting out each finger on one hand, Mother Teresa would tell people, “You. Did. It. To. Me.” Everything we do, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable and most needy among us, we are doing to Jesus. She spoke often of meeting Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” For her, that was the heart of the Christian message, and I’m beginning to agree with her. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to know that in caring for my kids, especially in the midst of a huge melt-down or in some other difficult moment, I have the privilege of meeting almighty God. If my heart is right and my mind is clear, I imagine myself caring for Jesus at that moment, just as people in the gospels washed his feet; wrapped him in swaddling clothes; and took his exhausted, wearied body down from the cross and laid it in his mother’s lap.
None of this diminishes the pain and the difficulties, of course. But maybe it will help us learn how to love and accept the situations we are in rather than try to run and hide from them or get swallowed up in anxiety or anger. Imagine the kind of world it would be if the least and the most challenged among us were treated as gifts and not glitches—as prophets and not problems.
Happy Easter, everyone.