February 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 7
The Gift Of Life
Recently, On the day after Christmas, my parents celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary. It's not that they were married the day after Christmas - the actual date was January 18, 1947. But it seemed best for us to celebrate their anniversary at Christmas, when family and friends are together. So with help from friends, Mom and Dad issued invitations to an Anniversary Mass at their parish church, followed by a simple reception in the parish hall.
It turned out to be lovely celebration. Mom and Dad renewed the pledge of love they had made to each other six decades earlier. Once again they promised to love one another "in good times and bad, in sickness and health…" For them, those words are no longer just promises but the sum and substance of their lives. In the course of their married lives they have experienced an ample share of joys, dreams, and hopes coupled with anxieties and sorrows. But as they looked into one another's eyes and repeated their marriage vows, their love was not shopworn and routine but still fresh and joyful - the more beautiful for having been tested.
Joining us on that happy occasion were members of our family - my brother Joe, an uncle, aunts, and cousins. We were also blessed by the presence of many friends old and new, especially the members of the Cursillo group to which my parents belong. In fact, it was members of this local Cursillo community who did so much to prepare for this celebration that brought about such a wonderful gathering - a gathering that represented all those who, over the years, helped form the mosaic of my parents' lives.
There was one more guest - really a participant - in this anniversary celebration: my brother Francis. As many of you know, "Frankie," as we call him, has lived his whole life with a handicap we used to call "mental retardation" or, in today's parlance, "intellectual and emotional disabilities." Frankie is the eldest son of my parents. Surely, when Mom and Dad first took each other in love, they could not foresee they would have a son with such significant challenges. But I attest that, at every turn, with the resources available to them, they sought to care for their son with a constant and sacrificial love that has shaped their love for one another.
Today, Frankie lives in a beautiful group home that is supported and managed by the Volunteers of America and staffed by very dedicated people. In this environment, my brother is doing better than perhaps at any time in his life.
I can't tell you how happy I was to see Frankie in church. I am told he didn't recognize me when I was wearing "the hat" (that is, the miter) - but once I took it off he knew it was his brother on the altar. As Mom and Dad renewed their vows, I could also see Frankie looking intently. Of course, I don't know what he was thinking. All I know is that our celebration would have been woefully incomplete without him. His presence was one of the Lord's very great anniversary gifts to my parents and to all of us who were privileged to be a part of that lovely celebration.
My brother's disability began to be apparent about 1950. Since then, my parents have received all sorts of advice on how to respond to Frankie's challenges. Some of it was good, some was well-meant but misguided, and some of it was indefensible. As their child, I can tell you it was not easy for them to sort it all out. My parents were not spared tremendous sacrifices and agonizing decisions. But through it all, their love for God's gift of life emerged with clarity and beauty. If ever the God-given link between life and love were demonstrated in real time and in real life, it's been the 59 years my Mom and Dad have cherished the life of a son that many would not have cherished - a life many in our society would say is not worth living. Mom and Dad see it differently. They know that Frankie's life is precious - not only in their eyes but, above all, in God's.
I would do my parents a disservice were I to paint an overly ideal picture of what all this has meant for them and for their family. Frankie's disability was often all-consuming, requiring their attention by day and by night. It often prevented us from engaging in leisure and social activities commonplace to most families. And yes, the choices to be made were not always clear. But the one choice Mom and Dad always made was to love and cherish the precious life which God, in the mysterious ways of His Providence, entrusted to them.
How instructive their example is for all of us during these days when, both as Church and as a society, we reflect on the value of all human life from the moment of conception until natural death. That oft-repeated formula, like the wedding vows, is not merely a matter of words but rather a drama to be lived.
The culture of life is built by prayer and reflection which gives insight into the humanity of the unborn, the handicapped, and others whose worth and dignity are discounted by our competitive society. It is also built by men and women who, with our active support and help, have the courage to bring to term a baby who will be disabled and whose care will require an unending commitment of love. It is built by those who care for a disabled spouse and an aged parent, or by those who seek the advance of medical science without denying and snuffing out any form of human life. The culture of life is built by those who choose life in spite of the demands, even suffering, that choice entails.
Last month, thousands of people from across the United States, including many from Fairfield County, converged on Washington, DC, for the annual March for Life on Monday, January 22. Amid the throng will be found men and women who, in spite of odds and opposition, have had the personal courage to choose life: the life of an unexpected child, the life of a disabled son or daughter, the life of an aged and infirm parent or relative. Amid the throng will be found those who are building the culture of life with the drama of their daily lives.
How privileged we should feel to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these individuals and to encourage them by our prayer, by our practical assistance, and by our advocacy in the public square for the humanity of the unborn, the disabled, and the infirm. And how gladly we should support those institutions and programs that protect and cherish human life at all its stages - such as Catholic hospitals, nursing homes that offer sound pastoral care and follow Catholic moral teaching, Catholic Charities, Saint Catherine Academy, Villa Maria Special Education Center, the Kennedy Center, and many others.
This March for Life is also a march of love for those little ones who have a special claim on our consciences.
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