Pope Francis' One-Minute Lesson from the School of Love

Rick Santorum's article "Two Years Worth Every Tear" was included in my book, A Special Mother Is Born, one line stood out. Writing of his daughter Bella, who lives with Trisomy 18, Santorum said, "Living with Bella has been a course in character and virtue."

Each of the thirty-four stories included in my book was written by parents of special needs children, and each contains a lesson that the so-called "disabled" child has taught the family and those who have been fortunate enough to meet them. Each lesson is unique, yet there is a common theme: having a child with special needs is entry into a school of love for the parents.

"Greater love has no man than this, he who gives up his life for his brother" (Jn. 15:13).

None of the book contributors died a physical death for our child, but day-by-day we die to ourselves for the sake of our child's special needs. Our expectations of what type of child we would have dies, and is replaced with a new vision of what perfection is in the eyes of God. A whole new paradigm of giving is unveiled as we learn that love is expressed in little, repetitive, unseen acts of service. In allowing ourselves to be shaped and molded into willing servants of love, our characters are purified of selfishness, providing fertile soil in which virtues grow: patience, humility, kindness, diligence, and most of all, charity, or love.

"For the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor. 1:13).

God's ways are not the world's; we seek to avoid the pain that accompanies character formation. We would rather have our own way, and remain selfish, and a child with special needs challenges all of that, which is why a child like my daughter, who lives with Down syndrome, is widely rejected. Great pains are taken by the medical community to help women avoid giving life to such children. Babies whose disability cannot yet be prenatally diagnosed are seen as "tragedies" that could have been avoided through abortion.

Dominic Gondreau's life is no tragedy; it was planned from the beginning of time by a loving God who planted him into a particular moment in history. There was Pope Francis, circling St. Peter's Square in the pope-jeep; he spotted Dominic and, before the eyes of the world, took him into his arms. The little boy with cerebral palsy threw his arm around the pope's neck and returned his kiss, radiating from his face a joy that captivated the hearts of millions as it graced every major news outlet and headline that evening.

Dominic's father, Paul writes of that moment:

Why is the whole world so moved by images of this embrace? A woman in the Square, moved to tears by the embrace, perhaps answered it best when she [said] to my wife afterward, "You know, your son is here to show people how to love." To show people how to love. This remark hit my wife as a gentle heaven-sent confirmation of what she has long suspected: that Dominic's special vocation in the world is to move people to love, to show people how to love. We human beings are made to love, and we depend upon examples to show us how to do this.

Paul Gondreau is a professor of theology at Providence College. His education prepared him to intellectually understand a moment like this, but his experience as Dominic's father was no less instructive.

But how can a disabled person show us how to love in a way that only a disabled person can? Because the Cross of Christ is sweet and is of a higher order. Christ's resurrection from the Cross proclaims that the love he offers us, the love that we, in our turn, are to show others, is the real reason he endured the Cross in the first place. Our stony hearts are transformed into this Christ-like love, and thereby empowered to change hatred into love, only through the Cross. And no one shares in the Cross more intimately than the disabled. And so the disabled become our models and our inspiration. Yes, I give much to my son, Dominic. But he gives me more, way more. I help him stand and walk, but he shows me how to love. I feed him, but he shows me how to love. I bring him to physical therapy, but he shows me how to love. I stretch his muscles and joke around with him, but he shows me how to love. I lift him in and out of his chair, I wheel him all over the place, but he shows me how to love. I give up my time, so much time, for him, but he shows me how to love.