Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Rest in Peace, Eunice

Eunice Kennedy Shriver died on Tuesday, and today will be buried from St. Francis Xavier, Hyannis, Massachusetts. Her legacy was immensely important to me personally – she strove to help the world see the strengths of persons with disabilities, rather than as a series of shortcomings or challenges. Her efforts were largely in response to the condition of her sister Rosemary, who seems perhaps to have been mildly mentally retarded or ill until a failed lobotomy, secretly ordered by her father, reduced her to utter incapacity. Eunice and her brother Ted Kennedy were both present when their sister Rosemary passed away in 2005.

Until recently, Eunice and Ted have had very different approaches, though. One cannot doubt that both loved their sister as best they knew how. That is natural. But Eunice was convinced that every single human life was a good thing, no matter what else. She personally advocated with president after president, starting with her brother. Even though she was a card-carrying Democrat, she was an outspoken supporter of the pro-Life cause within and outside of the Democratic Party. Ted, on the other hand, along with much of the political members of the Kennedy clan, has been a strong advocate for abortion. Abortion says nothing if it doesn’t say, “Some lives aren’t worth living.”

Persons with severe disabilities challenge our easy status quo. Normally, each of us is self-sufficient. We each can take care of ourselves, and occasionally help each other out as need arises. But a person with a severe difficulty, especially a mental one, needs constant help. Oftentimes they need help for the most basic functions of life. That means we around them must pitch in, get outside of ourselves, and learn to be patient, and gentle, and do extra work. Unlike “the rest of us,” it is not possible merely to coexist with the handicapped. They need too much. That is why we will either learn to love them or we will decide to kill them.

This morning, listening to NPR on the way to work, I heard some Democrat pundits fending off accusations by those hostile to their plans for healthcare reform. They brought up the accusation that they or their approach would kill all the people with Down syndrome. “Ha! Come on!” was about all they could say. Of course they don’t support killing all who have Down syndrome. They just support extensive neo-natal testing. Oh, but wait, they also support abortion on demand, and especially in difficult situations. And of course they support, many of them at least, government funding for abortions. Hmm… one wonders why there are so many fewer people being born with Down syndrome now than in the past.

But let’s get back to Ted and Eunice. Ted’s approach is the politically expedient one (for now), and it is also the more pleasant one, that is, the one that allows social pleasantries to do most of the work. After the abortion (say, of a child with Down syndrome), social pleasantries can go into full gear. It wasn’t a child, but a choice. There was no abortion (such an ugly word), but merely the premature termination of a pregnancy. The child who never existed didn’t have a perfectly livable condition with which millions of people worldwide live happily; rather, there was a severe defect. The doctor and family did not conspire to murder for the sake of convenience a child entrusted to their care by God Almighty, but rather, they sent home to Good and Gentle Jesus a precious little one who otherwise would have struggled greatly. Do you see, dear reader, how the game is played? False words cover over the truth, and one can try to look at oneself in the mirror again.

That’s not how Eunice’s approach works, though. In Eunice’s approach, a child is born into difficult circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances are extrinsic to the child – like poverty, or an ill mother or missing father. Sometimes the circumstances are part of who the child is – like mental disability or a permanent medical problem. The child’s life is filled with frequent or even constant hardship. Those close to the little boy or girl must learn to sacrifice in new and intense, profound ways: sleep is lost, money is spent on extensive necessities rather than on yearned-for luxuries, vacations are altered or sacrificed, hopes and dreams are modified or abandoned (that’s the hardest part). It is too much for one person, so the family, friends, neighbors, and local leaders all have to pitch in together. Cooperation makes an overwhelming set of challenges manageable. New virtues are acquired that were never before needed, or are developed when before they would have been slight: patience, tenderness, discipline, flexibility. Heroic effort is needed for basic steps. Those around the child eventually learn to be amazed and joyful at very little bits of progress – oh, how a person with handicaps struggles for such little gains. I remember my amazement to discover that my own handicapped sister had learned to tie her shoes. That she was fifteen years old wasn’t my interest, but only, “Hey, Ma! Look what she can do! Did you see that? Did you already know she could do that? Holy cow! That’s great, Keelin! Good job!” In Eunice’s plan, we learn self-sacrifice, cooperation, affection. We learn love. And as the child grows and prospers modestly, or not, we learn to see a rhythm in reality, a meaning in the muddle. We learn to see how one event happened before another, though we would not have so arranged things, and that the arrangement that actually happened was, in fact, arranged. We come to see that there is a plan in the universe, and a Planner. Ultimately, in the life of a child with disabilities, we come to see the face of God.

But it’s not romantic, and it’s not easy. There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to be shed along the way, or else everyone would do it. We need grace – the life, strength, joy of God shared with us from on high – or else we will go the path of least resistance. We will go the way the pagan world, the world without God, has always gone. The Jewish prophets were the first to object to the murder of the weak and marginalized. They were the first to insist that personal comfort and domination by the fittest were not in accord with God’s will, with deepest reality. Christians have taken up that objection, that insistence – though some of us have been seduced into murder by pleasant words. If we do not learn to pray, to return to God, to seek His help, we will end by killing those who interfere with our plan for happiness. We will go Ted’s way.

Now, on a closing note, I’d like to be fair to Ted. It is easy for a good heart to be seduced. Moreover, he now has brain cancer, and wasn’t even able to attend his sister Eunice’s funeral Mass. His cancer has certainly incapacitated him. He was there for Rosemary, after all. Maybe his struggle with cancer and the prayers of his sisters in heaven will help him to come to know the love of God in a more profoundly penetrating way than he has before.

Eunice, thank you for all you did. Yours was a monumental life. Now you are with your Rosie and can know her as God has always known her. Please pray for us who still journey here below.

P.s.: Today Eunice's family issued a powerful statement that well summarizes a powerful life. She visited Rosemary regularly. She advocated persistently for political and social measures to improve opportunities for those with handicaps to enjoy their full human potential. She strongly challenged consciences and gently coaxed contestants. She built the Special Olympics from a backyard affair (literally) to a global showcase of talent in which each individual is fostered and cheered on. Until the last years of her life, she and her husband, Sargent, hosted a summer camp for children with and without disabilities at their home in Rockville, Maryland, so that the children could grow with each other.

"Inspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she worked without ceasing - searching, pushing, demanding, hoping for change. She was a living prayer, a living advocate, a living center of power. She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy."

P.p.s.: Another thing strikes me about Mrs. Kennedy Shriver. In every single photograph of her that I can find, she is smiling. It seems as though her path, though it be harder, is happier.

Click here for the biography on her website.

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