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September 12, 2007|
Holy Name of Mary
Jerome Lejeune was born in Montrouge in 1926, into a family that would be ruined by the war of 1939-1945. At the age of 13, he discovered two authors, Pascal and Balzac, who would mark him for life. Captivated by Dr. Bénassis, the hero of Balzac's novel The Country Doctor, he too wanted to become a country doctor, dedicated to the care of the lowly and the poor. After the war, he threw himself passionately into the study of medicine. Soon a second motivation spurred his work; he met a young Danish woman, Birthe, and fell passionately in love with her. On June 15, 1951, he successfully defended his doctoral thesis. That same day, his future was decided in a direction completely different from what he had plannedone of his teachers, Professor Raymond Turpin, suggested they collaborate on a major work on «mongolism,» a condition that affects one out of every six hundred fifty children. Jerome accepted, and his path was set. On May 1, 1952, in Odense, Denmark, he married Birthe Bringsted, now Catholic, with whom he would have five children. Family life was his priority, especially during vacations. During his stays abroad, he wrote to his wife daily.
In 1954, he became a committee member of the French Genetics Society, and a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research. Since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the effect of nuclear radiation on human reproduction was the topic of the day. Turpin directed his team toward this field, and, in 1957, Jerome was named an «expert on the effects of atomic radiation on human genetics» by the United Nations. From then on, he participated in international conferences, where he was noted for his frank language in the face of certain delegations' desire to control the proceedings.
Three children were already the joy of his home when his father's health began to fail. Jerome was faced with the fact that it was lung cancer. The agony of his beloved father made him realize how «unbearable it is to see loved ones suffer.» From then on, his view deepenedin each patient's face he recognized Christ Himself.
Making use of new photographic techniques, Jerome discovered, in tissue from a young «Mongoloid,» the presence of an extra chromosome on the 21st pair (human beings have 23 pairs, or 46 chromosomes). This was the cause of «mongolism,» a condition that would from then on be called «Trisomy 21» or «Down's Syndrome.» The Académie de Médicine was informed of the discovery in March 1959. In November 1962, Jerome was awarded the Kennedy Prize. In October 1965, he was given the first chair of fundamental genetics at the University of Paris. Everything looked hopeful: his discovery and the publicity it received in the scientific world, he thought, would encourage research, and appropriate treatments would be developed to cure the afflicted and give hope to their parents. The families of the sick, drawn by Jerome's international fame and his warmth, came to him in ever greater numbers. He treated thousands of young patients, who came to him from all over the world, or with whom he corresponded. He helped the parents to understand and accept this trial with a Christian perspectivethese Down's Syndrome children, created in God's image, were promised an eternal future in which none of their disabilities remained. He assured them that their children, despite a serious mental handicap, would overflow with love and affection.
August 1967: Professor Lejeune was invited to the seventh world assembly of the Israeli Medical Association, in Tel Aviv. The group alternated between work and excursions; the first being to the Sea of Galilee. «I entered a small chapel done in poor taste,» Jerome would relate. «I prostrated myself and kissed the imaginary footsteps of the One Who was there.» At the moment, he experienced a strange feeling: «A son finding a very dearly beloved Father, a Father finally known, a revered Master, a very holy Heart discovered, I felt all this and much more....» Everything melted in this blaze of love: the world, honors, success, fear of the opinions of others. There was nothing but the Lord, and the need to respond to His loving kindness.
When Jerome rejoined the others, a force took hold of him. What was its purpose? An incident would put him on the path. On arriving at Cana, the guide asked if anyone knew the reason for the international fame of the city. Jerome took the microphone and naively recounted the story from the Gospels of the wedding and the miracle of the water turning into wine. Silence. Then the guide: «That's not it at all! Cana is important because the Helena Rubinstein cosmetics laboratories are here.» Everyone burst out laughing. Jerome kept silent: he felt powerless to avenge the insult Christ had just received right before his eyes. And then to Nazareth. Leaving the bus, everyone headed toward the Basilica of the Annunciation. But some spoke in loud voices, others indulged in obscene jokes about the Angel's visit and Mary's Virginity. Jerome felt he was being provoked. What should he do? He entered and, slowly, made the sign of the cross and kneeled out of reverence for the mystery of the Incarnation that had taken place here. Curiously, his humble and courageous attitude silenced the mockers. After this public profession of faith, no one provoked Professor Lejeune again, but he was excluded from the group.
«I've lost my 'Nobel' »
At the time all Europe was discussing the issue of abortion. Great Britain followed the lead of the United States, which had legalized screening for Down's Syndrome and its «treatment» by abortion. The media battle in France extended to the abortion of all unwanted children: «A baby does not legally become a person until it is born»; «a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body»... Specious arguments, to which many Catholics were susceptible, sometimes even to the point of spreading them.
During a trip to Virginia in October 1972, Jerome was shown a protocol to be used during physiological or biochemical experiments on five-month-old fetuses «removed» by Caesarean section for this purpose. He wrote to his wife: «The text says to treat them like any tissue or organ sample, but specifies that one must kill them after a short period of time... I simply said that no text could regulate crime.» How had his very qualified colleagues come to this? They had been molded, under the pretext of scientific rigor, to a point of view in which God had no place. «Good» is not that which conforms to the law of God, but that which is efficient; «bad» is that which interferes with material progress. For them, the fetus is no longer a person, a creature of God destined to see Him and love Him for all eternity. It can then become the target of any attack, as long as a majority agrees.
The weakest link
On May 13, 1981, Jerome and his wife were in Rome. The Holy Father wished to receive them in a private audience. After the discussion, the Pope spontaneously invited them to stay for lunch. The same evening, on their way back to Paris, they learned about the attack on John Paul II, a few hours after they had left him. Jerome's health was shaken by this news. That autumn, concerned by the international situation, the Pope decided to send each leader of a nation possessing nuclear weapons a delegation of members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, carrying a report on the dangers of nuclear war. For the USSR, he appointed Lejeune and two others. The meeting took place on December 15, 1981. «We scientists,» Jerome said plainly, «know that for the first time, the survival of humanity depends on all nations' acceptance of moral laws that transcend all systems and all speculation.» There was no whisper of this diplomatic mission in the press. The administrative harassment that, starting with the passage of the Veil Law, had begun to strangle Jerome, particularly in the form of repeated tax inspections, became more severe. His research grants were withdrawn; he was forced to close his laboratory. American and English laboratories, indignant at this conduct, granted him no-cost private loans. This impartial solidarity allowed him to rebuild a team of researchers moved by the same motivations.
In spite of the derision
In 1991, Jerome embarked on «reflections on professional ethics in medicine,» in seven points: «1. 'Christians, be not afraid!' It is you who possess the truth; not that you invented it, but you are the vehicle for it. To all doctors you must repeat: you must conquer the illness, not attack the patient. 2. Man is made in the image of God. For this reason alone he must be respected. ... 3. «Abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes» (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 51). 4. Objective morality exists; it is clear, and it is universal, because it is Catholic. 5. The child is not disposable and marriage is indissoluble. 6. You shall honor your father and mother: Uniparental reproduction by means of cloning or homosexuality is not possible. 7. The human genome, the genetic capital of our race, is not disposable.» Note this courageous phrase: «In so-called pluralistic societies, they shove it down our throats: 'You Christians don't have the right to impose your morality on others!' Well! I tell you, not only do you have the right to try to incorporate your morality in the law, but it's your democratic duty!»
Dying in action
Wednesday of Holy Week, March 30, 1994, as he lay in a delirium, in the grips of a fever of over 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), he was placed in hospice care. The next day, at dawn, he regained consciousness. On Good Friday, he confided to a priest who was giving him last rites: «I have never betrayed my faith.» This is all that counts before God... He told his children who were asking him what he wished to bequeath to his little patients: «I don't have much, you know... So, I have given them my life. And my life is all that I had.» Then, moved to tears, he murmured, «O my God! I was supposed to have cured them, and I am leaving without having found ... What will happen to them?» Then, radiant with joy, he spoke to his loved ones: «My children, if I can leave you a message, this is the most important of all: we are in the hands of God. I have experienced this a number of times.» The next day, Holy Saturday, passed quietly: Jerome was calm. However, at the end of the afternoon, his respiratory problems returned, worse than before. Suddenly authoritative, he ordered his wife and other loved ones to go home. He did not want them present at his agony. Sunday morning, around seven o'clock, he said with difficulty to a colleague he barely knew, who had been holding his hand for much of the night: «You see... I've done well...» and he breathed his last. Outside, the first ringing of the church bells could be heardit was the day of the Resurrection, the day of the Life that does not end. For «Christ is eternal life» (I Jn. 5:20)!
The next day, Pope John Paul II wrote these words about Jerome Lejeune: «We find ourselves today faced with the death of a great Christian of the twentieth century, a man for whom the defense of life had become an apostolate. It is clear that, in the situation of the world today, this form of apostolate among the laity is particularly necessary...»