December 25, 1998

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


December 25, 1998
Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On November 20, 1970, in a Christian home near Paris, a child came into the world who would receive the first name of Emmanuel at his holy Baptism. A brother, Vincent, and a sister, Anne, had come before him. The birth unleashed an explosion of joy in the family. The father, Mr. D., did not miss an evening visit to the maternity ward where his two treasures rested: Mom and Emmanuel; and each time the same happiness came over him, but it always seemed fresh.

"He doesn't know how to suckle"

Three days later, Mr. D. hurried to the hospital with a bouquet of flowers. His heart was beating very fast, just as it had the first time. There he was in the doorway to the room. But then he froze exactly where he was standing-from her bed, his wife turned towards him with her face bathed in tears. He hurried to her side. She fixed her eyes on him, stretched her arm towards him, her voice strangled with sobs, and said: "Our child is not normal!" Instinctively, the father's gaze fell on the crib where the newborn slept with his fists closed. "I don't see anything abnormal. Did someone say something to you?" he asked his wife. "No, no one; but I know it, I sense it; he doesn't move, he doesn't cry, he doesn't know how to suckle."

The husband and wife stayed together with their child all afternoon. The next day, Mrs. D. decided to have the child examined by a pediatrician. The specialist questioned the mother, then the father, in a kindly manner, and then very calmly began a long and methodical examination of the baby. The wait was a torment for the parents. Finally, the doctor turned towards them with a look full of friendship and charity. He discussed his diagnosis with delicacy before arriving at the conclusion: "Your child will not be like others." With extreme kindness, he informed them that Emmanuel had the condition of trisomy 21  that he was "mongoloid." The mother's first intuition was right.

"We will love him just as we love the others"

Mr. D. had to inform the family. When he arrived at home, he found Emmanuel's grandparents, aunts and uncles who came to hear the news. He couldn't hold back his tears and stuttered: "mongoloid." General consternation ensued. Then they got a hold of themselves and the same phrase spontaneously came from everyone's lips: "We will love him  like the others." The others, Vincent and Anne, were also there, and their feelings were the same: "Yes, we will love him, we will love him!"

"We will love him!" A wonderful answer, which is a light for our world. The Christian attitude of Emmanuel's family contrasts with the rejection, alas all too frequent in our society, of the handicapped child, incapable -so it is thought- of being happy or of making others happy. Pope John Paul II has said on this subject: "We are confronted by a reality which can be described as a veritable structure of sin. This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable `culture of death'  A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favored tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of `conspiracy against life' is unleashed" (Encyclical Evangelium vitæ, 12). The refusal to welcome or to let live those who are bothersome (the child conceived but "not desired," the disabled or aged person, the terminally ill person ) shows a deep disregard for the value of all human life.

Why is all human life good? In its first pages the Holy Bible gives a strong and admirable answer to this question. The life that God gives to man is different and distinct from that of every other living creature. The creation of man alone is presented as the fruit of a special decision on the part of God: at the end of the creation of the world, He solemnly decreed: Let us make man to our image and likeness (Gen 1: 26). A very high dignity was conferred on man, whose roots are deep in the intimate ties that bind him to his Creator: in man shines forth a reflection of the very reality of God (cf. Evangelium vitæ, 34). This reflection is not erased by mental disability.

I will never forget you!

By the fact that he is in the image of God, alone among all creatures bestowed with intelligence and free will, man is capable of knowing and loving his Creator. He is called to enter into a personal communication of love with Him, even if for a time, or even for all of one's life on earth, this relationship is made difficult or mysterious. Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, "Let us try to understand how tender God's love is, since He Himself said in Scripture: Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? and if she should forget, yet will not I forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee in My hands: thy walls are always before My eyes (Is 49: 15-16). When you feel alone or rejected or sick and forgotten, remember that you are precious to Him. You are endowed with great importance in His eyes."

The importance of each person in the eyes of God is shown to us even more in the work of Redemption, the forgiveness of sins: In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because He hath first loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (I Jn 4: 10). "Precisely by contemplating the precious blood of Christ, the sign of His self-giving love, the believer learns to recognize and appreciate the almost divine dignity of every human being and can exclaim with ever renewed and grateful wonder: How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he `gained so great a Redeemer' (Exsultet of the Easter Vigil), and if God gave His only Son in order that man should not perish but have eternal life (cf. Jn 3: 16)" (Evangelium vitæ, 25).

"Fully God's child"

The life that the Son of God came to give to man is not reduced to existence in time. It is called on to last for all eternity. The Apostle Saint John wrote: Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called and should be the sons of God. Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him because we shall see Him as He is (I Jn 3: 1-2).

Emmanuel's grandfather illustrated this truth when he wrote: "The Baptism of my children (and grandchildren) has been for me each time a great moment. Nowadays, it seems to me that the accent is placed on the `entry into the Church.' That's fine. But for me I see in it above all the true birth of this child of our flesh into the very Life of God. Emmanuel will not have the intellectual development or physical capacities of other children. But I know and feel that this is no inferiority; he is fully a Child of God; illness can do nothing against this essential dignity."

Thus, "here the Christian truth about life becomes most sublime. The dignity of this life is linked not only to its beginning, to the fact that it comes from God, but also to its final end, to its destiny of fellowship with God in knowledge and love of Him" (Evangelium vitæ, 38). This communion of love is not reserved for an elite of perfectly formed men. It also extends to all of the "poor" in body or mind. "The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them (Lk 7: 22). With these words of the Prophet Isaiah, Jesus sets forth the meaning of His own mission: all who suffer because their lives are in some way `diminished' thus hear from Him the good news of God's concern for them, and they know for certain that their lives too are a gift carefully guarded in the hands of the Father (cf. Mt 6: 25-34)" (Evangelium vitæ, 32).

Overcoming one's limits

My dearest, if God hath so loved us; we also ought to love one another (I Jn 4: 11). The patient upbringing of Emmanuel was wholly filled with this love to which Saint John exhorts us. It depended on exact information concerning the nature of the child's handicap. Professor Jerome Lejeune, who discovered the cause of trisomy 21 in 1959, explained that this illness is not racially based, nor an effect of syphilis, alcoholism, or mental inferiority of the parents, as was thought up to that time: it is a chromosomal accident. The "mongoloid" child possesses all of the organs and genetic machinery appropriate for a man, without "error in the construction plans"; he only has an excess of genetic information because his cells accidentally possess one chromosome too many. This is an illness that poses obstacles to the development of intellectual faculties, without affecting either the memory or the emotional life of the affected person. Medicine still hopes one day to be able to cure the victims of this illness.

Like the majority of trisomics, Emmanuel stood out by his lethargy. But Mrs. D. did not resign herself to this fate: with tenacity, she pushed him beyond his limits. When he fell forward, it did not occur to him to protect his head with his hands. His mom taught him how to fall, on a mattress, putting his arms forward, until this automatic response became second nature. To make him walk, she took him and put one foot in front of the other while he supported himself against a wall; they did this for days on end until he could walk by himself: What a miracle of patience! The same practice to teach him to go up and down stairs  Soon, Emmanuel was taking part in races with his father, brother and sister, and from time to time, they let him finish first while his mother applauded him.

It took a lot of energy to get him used to using his tongue and lips and teeth in order to pronounce vowels and consonants. He spoke willingly, but his pronunciation was often mixed up. When they didn't understand him, they made him repeat himself once or twice or three times: Finally he would get tired, take his head in his hands for a minute or two, then put his head up and pronounce the word, or a synonym of it, correctly. He had a clear understanding of good and bad, of what was permitted and what was forbidden. He busied himself, diverted himself and spread joy. He also was a bit of a tease, with a certain mischievousness always running through his imagination. His laughter was exemplary. He loved sports: in soccer he had a good kick, and in judo he was fearsome. At lawn bowling he had a "magic" touch and never missed the goal. Gymnastics didn't scare him; he always managed to get through it. The family went on vacation in the mountains. Sometimes there were pretty long walks, often going uphill; then his little voice could be heard: "Can we take a little rest?"

Like a pool of water

Generally speaking, all of those who came into contact with Emmanuel were charmed by one or another of his personality traits. First, he trusted everyone without hesitation. Then, he had this look which he gave you which was so kind and spread over you like a pool of water which permeated every opening that it came across. He inundated you with his tenderness. Finally, he knew how to forget about himself and devote his attention to others. He liked taking responsibility for children and helping them. He often had a kind word for those around him. To please others was second nature to him. He had lessened, even surpassed his handicap even though it had not disappeared.

The case of Emmanuel confirms the testimony of Jean Vanier, founder of the Ark: the benevolent attention that we give to the disabled "becomes slowly a communion of hearts, because even the person with a major disability responds to love with love  It is a relationship of mutual trust that transforms the image of a wounded and depressed person into a positive image, helping him to discover his value, his dignity by giving him hope and a reason to live  Weak people have a mysterious power which calls to communion, transforms those who welcome them, bringing them closer to the heart of God. They are a source of unity."

In suffering  with Jesus

On January 30, 1976, Emmanuel had a bad bloody nose followed by episodes of fever. On March 17, he was hospitalized at the Salpétrière hospital in Paris. He underwent bone marrow studies and tests revealed that Emmanuel had leukemia. During numerous hospitalizations over the next seven years, his parents or friends were always at his side so that he was never alone. During one of his remissions he was able to stay with his family, but finally the relapses accelerated: July 1982, April 1983, and July 1983.

Early on, Emmanuel desired to receive Jesus. Every time his mom went to Communion he would ask, "And me?" During Sunday Mass it was rare to see him distracted and, in matters concerning God, he always "paid total attention to what he was doing." He would reprimand other children who made noise in church, or make a sign to them to be quiet. His faith ripened from day to day. His attraction to "Jesus in the Host" became greater and greater. On Holy Thursday, March 23, 1978, he received Him for the first time. Beginning on this day, he went to Communion at every Mass with deep composure and immense desire. One day, after Communion in a parish in Auxerre, instead of going back to his place with his parents, he stayed in a choir stall, his head resting on his joined hands. Going up to him, his dad asked him: "Emmanuel, what are you doing?" He answered, "I am praying to Mary so that Mom doesn't weep any more." He was confirmed on April 24, 1983.

Many trisomics share this sensitivity and this opening to the divine. Jesus, who calls at the door of all hearts, finds these little ones eager to open the door to Him. Commenting on a speech in which Pope Paul VI urged the disabled to walk towards holiness, Jean Vanier said: "Yes, certain disabled men and women are saints. By their simplicity, their thirst for love, and their openness to Jesus, they confound the important people of this world, those who look for effectiveness and power outside of a sense of service and of a communion of hearts. They are quite poor and limited, but they are rich in faith, as the apostle Saint James reminds us: Hearken, my dearest brethren: hath not God chosen the poor in this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which God hath promised to them that love him? (James 2: 5)."

An abominable crime

Yet, "disabled persons are among the most oppressed of our world, despite the progress that has occurred in some countries. Many, actually more and more, are eliminated while still in their mother's womb" (Jean Vanier). One day, Professor Lejeune saw a ten year old trisomic child in consultation who threw himself into his arms and said to him: "They want to kill us; you must protect us, because we are too weak, we don't know how to defend ourselves!" The night before, he had watched with his parents a television program on abortion, explaining that, thanks to prenatal diagnostic tests, it was possible to detect trisomy 21 and abort unwanted children. From this day on, the Professor tirelessly defended the unborn child. He understood that the first threat against the life of the disabled was at the level of prenatal diagnostic testing when this is performed in order to encourage abortion. "Prenatal diagnosis, which presents no moral objections if carried out in order to identify the medical treatment which may be needed by the child in the womb, all too often becomes an opportunity for proposing and procuring an abortion" (John Paul II, Evangelium vitæ, 14).

But abortion is always, in and of itself, a very serious sin. Pope John Paul II has written: "The commandment `You shall not kill' has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person. And all the more so in the case of weak and defenseless human beings who find their ultimate defense against the arrogance and caprice of others only in the absolute binding force of God's commandment  The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God Himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity. Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, one suffering from an incurable disease or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or for another person entrusted to his care, nor can he consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly, nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action" (Ibid., 57).

Today, in many people's consciences the perception of the gravity of abortion has become progressively obscured. "The acceptance of abortion in the popular mind, in behavior and even in law itself, is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake. Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard the reproach of the Prophet Isaiah is extremely straight-forward: Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Is 5: 20)" (Evangelium vitæ, 58).

Certain people attempt to justify abortion by holding that the fruit of conception, at least until a certain number of days, cannot be considered as a personal human life. In reality, "immediately at the fertilization of the egg there begins a life that is neither that of the mother nor of the father, but a new human being that develops for itself. It will never become human if it is not human at that point. To this obvious conclusion from time immemorial, modern genetic science brings important confirmation. It has shown that right from the very beginning is fixed the program of that which will be this living being: a person, this individual person with his characteristics already quite determined" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 18, 1974). With the same strong conviction, scientifically acquired, Professor Lejeune liked to say: "The most materialistic student of medicine is obliged to recognize that the human being begins at conception; if not, he fails!"

You are too tired!

On September 7, 1983, the specialist told Emmanuel's parents that there was nothing more that he could do. Those last Sundays, even though he was very weak, Emmanuel wanted to go to Mass and serve at the altar. His brother tried to dissuade him: "You are too tired and you won't be able to kneel down." Then, with extraordinary courage to show that he could and that he wanted to go, Emmanuel pushed on his legs, stood up straight from the ground, without help, genuflected, and then stood straight back up. He would go to serve Jesus.

On September 27, nothing was going right. Emmanuel could only stay in bed and whimper. Mom and Dad together leaned over to look at him. The child spoke feebly but clearly: "You know, I really love you, Dad. You know, I really love you, Mom." These were his last words to his parents. He had just said to them, "Goodbye, see you in Heaven."

"Emmanuel, God with us, will remain a symbol full of hope, because Christians are people for whom the birth, life and death of a little disabled child is worth more than all the applause given to idols, worth more than all the empires and all the gold in the world" (Father Maurice Cordier, former parish priest of Emmanuel's family). As we celebrate the birth of the God-Child, may the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph teach us to see and to serve Jesus in all our brothers, especially the weakest! We wish you all a very holy Christmas and a new year filled with every blessing!

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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