A few years back, I was delighted to hear that some Notre Dame friends of mine were pregnant with their fifth child. But my joy quickly turned to sorrow when I read the first line of the email: “It started as a routine ultrasound.” They quickly learned that their daughter had anencephaly, a neural tube disorder in which the skull is not properly formed, and much of the brain is missing.
They started a blog and posted updates on how things were going. A month after the ultrasound, they wrote: “A question that comes up is, ‘How do you deal with a situation like this?’ How many times have we been asked already if we would like to terminate. It is not at all an option for us. This is our child that we are going to love and nurture for as long as we can. Actually, she isn’t even our child ultimately: she is God’s child. Like all of our children. Our deep faith in God and our hope in heaven keep us going.”
They took the words of our Lord in the Gospels seriously, opening their hearts wide to allow God’s truth to live in them: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” They allowed God the Father to prune away the dead branches of the culture of death—a culture that adulates individuals like Princeton University professor Peter Singer. Often called the “most influential” philosopher alive, Singer says that it would be ethically OK to kill one-year old children with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of killing these children would be raised as soon as possible after birth (see Marvin Olasky, “The Most Influential Philosopher Alive”).
“Abide in me as I abide in you.” My friends named their daughter Angela because they knew she was going to be their little angel in heaven. They had been praying for a miracle and, just after the New Year, they wrote: “Dear Lord, if not a miracle healing, then please let her be born alive so we can shower our love on her.” It really makes you stop and think: How can anyone treat a helpless, defenseless child—a child who has the breath of God’s life and Spirit flowing in them—as though they were “damaged goods” to be discarded like trash? How could anyone who has a soul given to them by God deny a child the freedom to experience the depth of a mother’s love?
A child first learns to love in his mother’s womb, where he knows that the relationship of love and life is intensely personal. Like the vine attached to the branch, the child is literally attached to his mother, depending on her love for his very life. Jesus says to us, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me.” We depend on the love of God for our very life, and He invites us to live according to His will so that we can bear much fruit and be worthy of the name “disciple.”
How can we serve Jesus as His disciples when we overlook what God has made abundantly clear in Scripture: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you … For it was you who created my being, knit me together in my mother’s womb … Already you knew my soul, my body held no secret from you when I was being fashioned in secret … Every one of my days was decreed before one of them came into being (see Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139). The Church teaches that all “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person–among which is the sacred right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2270). This is not a suggestion: this is what it means to abandon all and follow Christ.
When Angela was born she weighed six pounds, seven ounces. She was immediately baptized and confirmed. They thought they would have only a few minutes with her but she lived three days. During that time, Angela learned the meaning of love from her mother’s gentle touch and as she nursed from her mother’s breast. Angela experienced the love of God through a unique and special bond with her mother—a bond that no man can appreciate or understand. The woman’s motherhood constitutes a special and most demanding part in the loving parenting relationship and, in many ways, a man has to learn his own fatherhood from the mother (cf. Pope John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 18).
Children learn the meaning of love first from their mothers because the woman is the one in whom the order of love in the created world of persons first takes root (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, 29). The order of love belongs to the intimate life of God himself and, in this intimate life of God, love becomes a gift. The dignity of a woman is measured by the order of love, which is the order of justice and charity (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, 29).
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you will and it shall be done for you.” On the third day, Angela’s breathing became labored and she started to turn purple. Surrounded by family and friends, Angela took her last breath, opening her eyes briefly as she slipped away—the only time she opened them her whole life. A parent’s primary responsibility is to get their children to heaven and God blessed them for a job well done by allowing Angela to gaze upon the faces of her father and mother, who sacrificed so much and who remained firmly joined to the vine of Christ.
Saint Angela Marie, pray for us!
©2011 Aurem Cordis and Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers