Hope in the Lord — Families and persons with a disability

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz

My good friend growing up, Ed Leahy, asked me to give the keynote talk at the 13th Conference on Disability at the University of Scranton. He and I have been friends since grade school and have kept in touch all these years. I could not say no. The talk is later today.

Ed and his wife, Pat, had one child, a son born with a disability. He died 20 years ago, but his presence in their lives and their love for him have not faded one bit. Ed is a retired attorney living just outside Washington, D.C., who is a graduate of the University of Scranton and has been on the board of directors there. He and Pat have been very instrumental in beginning this annual conference. I will be traveling to Scranton right after I finish writing this column for the Nov. 6 issue of The Record.

As speaking engagements near, especially when the commitment was made a year ago, there is a certain amount of dread. The thinking goes like this: Why in the world did I say yes? There is so much to do. I hate the travel. How will I get ready for yet another talk?

These thoughts crossed my mind, ever so briefly. Then I began to think of my dear brother, Georgie, who had Down syndrome and whose presence changed my life and that of my family and so many others. I began to get excited about the prospect.

For preparation, I read Pope Francis’ message on the 20th anniversary of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Of all things, he spoke of family as the difference-maker when it comes to a person with disabilities. The family can be the difference in moving one away from a “leftover,” “throwaway” attitude that demeans anyone with a disability and any thought of the sacrifice called for to a renewed attitude that can change civilization.

Pope Francis said: “The family … is the teacher of acceptance and solidarity: it is within the family that education substantially draws upon relationships of solidarity … the family teaches us not to fall into individualism and to balance the ‘I’ with the ‘we.’ ”

Then he adds: “It is there that ‘taking care of one another’ becomes a foundation of human life and a moral attitude to foster.”

Then I went back to the Vatican’s 2000 Jubilee Year statement on persons with disabilities and read this:

“The richness of a person with disability is a constant challenge to the Church and society to be open to the mystery such persons present. Disability … is a place where normality and stereotypes are challenged, and the Church and society are moved to search for that crucial point at which the human person is fully himself.” It calls the person with disability “a privileged interlocutor of society and the Church.” And the statement later adds that the person with a disability “… must be an active subject in a relationship of love and not only the object of charitable actions.”

When I go to Scranton, I will speak of my personal experience living in a family shaped mightily by the positive presence of my brother with Down syndrome. I also will witness to Dr. Jerome Lejeune.

Born in 1926 in France, Dr. Lejeune was named the first president of the Pontifical Academy for Life (quoted above) by St. John Paul II in 1994 but died before he could take up the role. In 1959, he discovered the extra chromosome (21) responsible for Down syndrome — which he called Trisomy 21. In the biography written by his daughter, called Life is a Blessing, his life is portrayed with all the struggles that came as he defended persons with disabilities. Not surprisingly, his strong commitment to family life comes through brilliantly.

Two little quotes from him speak volumes:

“We need to be clear: The quality of a civilization can be measured by the respect it has for its weakest members. There is no other criterion.” And the second: “We call on all people of good will to ensure that health protection is grounded in a renewed spirituality: Every patient is my brother.”

On the holy card seeking prayers through his intercession as a “Servant of God,” there is his photo and the words: “One phrase, only one, dictates our conduct, the expression of Jesus himself: Whatever you do to one of the least of my brothers, you do it to me.”

I am so glad I said yes to the talk at the University of Scranton.


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