About a year ago, I was celebrating Confirmation at a local parish when a grandmother came up and said, “Archbishop, my granddaughter has a question for you.” So I asked the girl, “What’s the question?” And she said, “Archbishop, why was my brother born with autism?” “You know,” I said, “I can’t really answer that question. It’s a mystery. But when you and I get to heaven, God willing, we’re going to ask a lot of questions like that. Now let me ask you a question: do you love your brother?
“I sure do,” she said. “Well,” I said, “I can tell you this much: your life will be infinitely enriched because of your love for your brother, and your brother’s life will be infinitely enriched because of your love for him.”
Living with mysteries like this—and seeing the gift that is part of those mysteries—is perhaps more central to our lives than any job we take or anything else we accomplish. It’s this call to embrace the mysteries and the gifts of life in this world that I want to explore with you.
A Mystery to Be Lived. Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher from the nineteenth century, once said, “Life is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be lived.” The notion of accompanying someone—which that little girl was learning to do with her brother and which Pope Francis talks about so often—can help move us away from seeing disability or any challenge in life as simply a problem to be solved. Rather, it’s through accompanying one another that we enter into the mystery that God wants us to live.
I want to share with you two stories from the life of my brother George, who had Down syndrome, that capture this idea. Our mother died in September of 1989, and shortly after the funeral, George came to live with me in the rectory where I was a pastor in Pennsylvania. We lived together for almost twelve years, in two rectories and the bishop’s house.
The first story happened one morning after Mass not long after George had come to live with me. I must have looked a little discouraged that morning, because Georgie came up to me, put his arm around me, and said, “Don’t worry. Mom is in heaven. You have me.”
That’s a lesson from a theologian! It’s a message of mutual accompaniment, of living the mystery rather than solving every problem. Do not be afraid. Eternal life is the gift that we all yearn for, and I have my brother Georgie to walk with me.
The second story comes from around the same time. It was a Saturday morning, and I was going over my to-do list for the day. “George,” I said, “here are all the things we have to do today.” And I listed them one by one. When I finished, George turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “Good morning.” With just two words, he reminded me that there is much more to life than lists of things that need to be done. There is the encounter with the other person right in front of me—the mystery and the gift of that encounter. (Of course, after that, he said, “I need my coffee!”)
Listening and Lingering. When we talk about accompanying one another, we are talking about the priority of lingering with people rather than looking for quick solutions to whatever problems they are facing. A couple of years ago, I had a bout with cancer that forced me to take a pause from many of my responsibilities as archbishop. During that time, I thought about the story of the Visitation from the Gospel of Luke.
Our Blessed Mother, already pregnant and carrying Jesus himself in her womb, traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist. When I entered the seminary, we were told that this story was a model for serving other people—and that’s a fine way to understand service. But as I underwent chemotherapy and began my recuperation, I noticed something I hadn’t seen for fifty-plus years. It was the last line in that story. Luke wrote, “Mary remained with her [cousin] about three months” (1:56). She lingered with her.
If we truly want to see the other person—whoever that may be—as a mystery and gift instead of a problem, we have to learn to enter into that person’s life and linger with them, as Mary did with Elizabeth. You begin by listening, especially by listening in prayer. If you bring that person’s intentions to God in prayer, you’ll find yourself more open to lingering with them.
At the same time, you need to be ready to listen to the person right in front of you—to linger with them. It’s not as if we can think, “First I’ll pray, and then I’ll know what to do.” Yes, we need to cultivate that habit of listening in prayer, but we also have to go out and listen to people. Because we don’t encounter Christ only in our quiet prayer; we encounter him also in one another. We can’t fall into a comfortable life in which prayer makes us remote from people. You need to listen to people, because God speaks through them.
Grace-Filled Interpreters. Mutual accompaniment like the kind Mary and Elizabeth experienced is so important for all of us. My mom and dad weren’t prepared to receive my brother George. So even as they learned how to care for a child with Down syndrome, they also needed people to help them interpret, so to speak, their experiences with him. They cared for my brother with a love that endured for sixty years, but they needed engagement with people who could listen to their experiences, their hopes, and their concerns, and help them see God’s hand in ways they might not have recognized on their own.
My parents found that kind of help through our family doctor and the pastor of our parish. They provided invaluable support, both for my brother George and for my parents. They took the time to listen to my parents’ concerns and helped them understand the realities surrounding their son that were confusing for them. Even when they didn’t know that’s what they were doing, they were helping my parents see the mystery and the gift that George was to them.
Boast in Your Weakness. Accompanying my brother George taught me so much about myself. Every once in a while, I look back and I think about the times in that year before he entered a nursing home when I was impatient with him. And when I think about that, I recall how we need to accept our own weakness in our efforts to care for people. As St. Paul said, “I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
I want to leave you with one more thought. If you want to treat someone with dignity, there is no place for paternalism. There is no place for looking down on them. When I was growing up, I used to resent how condescending some people could be—even with the kindest of intentions. When they learned that my brother had Downs syndrome, they would say to me, “Oh, Georgie must be so nice and so good!” And I would say, “Yes, some days he is good, and other days, he’s not so good. I’m good some days too, and other days, not so much.” We are all the same. We all need Christ in our lives. And Christ needs us. The Church needs all of us to be complete.
Joseph Kurtz is Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky, and serves as the episcopal moderator for the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (ncpd.org). This article is adapted from a talk given by Archbishop Kurtz on November 12, 2020, at a theological symposium cosponsored by NCPD and the Institute on Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America (ihe.catholic.edu).