From the beginning of his pontificate eight months ago, Pope Francis has received a lot of attention for his unique approach. We saw him enthusiastically welcome the mob that greeted his wayward car in Rio de Janeiro at the start of his World Youth Day visit.
We saw him wash the feet of prison inmates—including young women and Muslims—on Holy Thursday. And we saw him travel by everyday commercial airliner to the island of Lampedusa to greet and pray with impoverished immigrants from North Africa. Time after time, the Holy Father has paid special attention to the poor, the suffering, the forgotten, and the marginalized.
Among these gestures, two have struck me in a very personal way. The first one happened on the day of his inauguration as pope, when Francis took an impromptu ride around St. Peter’s Square. Passing through the crowds in his open-air car, he waved to the cheering people, clearly enjoying their energy and radiating it back to them.
But then something happened that must have surprised his security detail. Asking the driver to stop, he got out of the car and walked over to greet a man with disabilities. The man, who couldn’t walk, was being held by a friend. He beamed from ear to ear as the pope kissed his forehead and blessed him.
The second scene played out on Easter Sunday, as the pope again stopped his car to warmly embrace a young boy with cerebral palsy (see the cover photo).
Father-to-Father Moments. Watching both of these episodes, I felt as if I were a privileged, silent witness to a sacred encounter. I felt an intense connection with Pope Francis at those moments because I am the father of special-needs children. You see, of my six children, five are on the autism spectrum. They are all high-functioning, but each of them has his or her own constellation of challenges: social, emotional, behavioral, medical, and educational.
As a result, our home life can get very complicated. My wife, Katie, and I have had to learn how to deal with passionate, sometimes violent meltdowns. Simple homework assignments can take hours. So can parent-teacher conferences. Therapy sessions have replaced soccer games and ballet recitals. Most of our children have a hard time making or keeping friends, leaving them feeling lonely and unloved. Even something as ordinary as a trip to a crowded grocery store can be difficult.
This is why the sight of the Holy Father going out of his way to bless people with disabilities is so moving to me. Perhaps one reason he does it is to show all of us how to reach out to the neediest among us. But I get the sense that Pope Francis also feels drawn to them because he gets something in return for the love he shows to them.
Lessons in Loving. Every parent of a special-needs child asks why. Why did this happen? Why him and not someone else? What did he (or we) do to deserve this? When we first learned about our children’s challenges, we asked the same questions. But trying to rise above the fears, frustration, and anger, I began to tell myself that asking how was more helpful than asking why. How can we help them? How should we rearrange our lives? How should we plan for their futures? But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get away from why.
Over time, as I’ve prayed about this and as I’ve experienced the give-and-take of parenthood, I’ve come to the conclusion that you really can’t answer the “how” questions unless you are also spending some time working on the “why.” And one of the best answers I’ve come up with is that this happened because God wanted to give Katie and me the gift of caring for and raising children who have a special, prophetic role in this world.
I’m sure that many people look at children like ours as a drain on the economy, and an extra burden on school systems. But I’m just as convinced that there are others who will look beyond these kids’ needs and find the love that they offer. I’m sure there are those who will be touched by their innocence, vulnerability, and simplicity of heart. I’m sure there are people who will be moved to be more loving, more gentle, and more patient because of my kids.
I know this has happened to Katie and me. As parents of special-needs children, we are called to give more than the usual amount to our children. We give more money, more time, more therapy, more guidance, more advocacy—more of everything. It’s a lot of work, and it can be a draining, thankless job.
But while we’re busy giving so much to our children, they are busy giving us a lot more. They’re giving us huge lessons in what it means to love. They’re teaching us how to give from the heart. They’re not demanding it; they just draw it out of us. It’s similar to the way Jesus gave himself for us. It wasn’t because we stormed heaven and demanded that he save us. He did it because his heart warmed at the sight of us. He just couldn’t help but become one of us and share our pain and need.
When I look at my children—specifically with their challenges and disabilities—as God’s gracious gifts to me and to the world, my heart softens. I find more patience, more peace, and a renewed willingness to fight for them. Bitterness recedes, fear diminishes, and hope grows. I find myself closer to the Lord.
The Five-Fingered Gospel. Mother Teresa often talked about what she called the “Five-Fingered Gospel.” Carefully counting out each finger on one hand, she would tell people, “You. Did. It. To. Me.” She would say that everything we do, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable and needy among us, we are doing to Jesus “in the distressing disguise of the poor.” For Mother Teresa, that was the heart of the Christian message. I’m beginning to agree with her.
I can’t tell you how helpful it is to know that in caring for my kids—especially in the midst of a huge meltdown or when one of them gets sucked into a downward spiral of fearful, negative, or anxious thinking—I have the privilege of meeting Jesus himself and learning from him how to love. If my heart is right and my mind is clear, I imagine myself caring for the Lord at that moment, just like the people who washed his feet, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, or took his lifeless body down from the cross and laid it in his mother’s lap.
The world is filled with people who call us to love. It’s not just those with disabilities. It’s also those who are poor, sick, troubled, and lonely. Imagine the kind of world it would be if the people who are the least and most challenged among us were treated as gifts and not glitches, as prophets and not problems.
Leo Zanchettin is editor of The Word Among Us.