On Father’s Day nine years ago, my son Dominic was born. Most of the world knows Dominic as the disabled boy Pope Francis embraced this past Easter Sunday while he was touring St. Peter’s Square.
What I didn’t know when Dominic was born in the early morning hours of Father’s Day, 2004, in what the medical profession calls a "crash" (emergency) C-section, but what I know now, is how the birth of this boy would change my entire outlook on and experience of fatherhood. His birth was a Father’s Day gift that continues to give in untold ways.
Dominic was born three and a half months premature after a troubled pregnancy (his due date was October 1). Resulting from of an abruption (or separation) of the placenta, his premature birth nearly cost him his life. But he survived, thanks in large measure to the skill of my wife’s doctor and through his own strong will to live.
Dominic, in fact, was born perfectly healthy, despite his prematurity. Yet three short days into his early life, he developed an infection from the PERC Line inserted into his vein to provide him with fluids and nutrition. As his brain was still in a critical stage of development, it seems the need for his body to fight the infection compromised this development.
The deleterious impact on his nervous system was significant, and a severe case of cerebral palsy resulted.
Yet, there was no way of knowing this at the time. It was only as the weeks and months transpired that we noticed Dominic, who was our third child, failed to meet the usual thresholds. By the time he was six months old, we could no longer deny something was seriously wrong. As my wife and I struggled with adjusting to this new reality—what exactly was his condition and how should we treat it?—we could never have imagined, at that time, what an unforeseen blessing his disabled condition would turn out to be.
No parent expects to have a special needs child. The challenge comes in how the parent responds to that child. Most parents of special needs children who have embraced their situation will be effusive in listing the many unexpected blessings they have encountered in having such a child, and how it has changed them for the better in immeasurable ways. This is especially true for those parents who see their situation with the eyes of faith, and in particular recognize the connection between the Cross of Christ and their own situation.
While perhaps not in these words, they will easily attest to how the logic and “folly” of the Cross, to use St. Paul’s term from 1 Corinthians, has manifested itself over and over again through the experience of caring for a special needs child. What I mean is they witness firsthand, in their own homes, how God continues to raise up the weak, the lowly and the humble (the child) in order to shame the strong and the powerful (themselves). They are confronted with their own failings and shortcomings in the face of a child whose own limitations, on a purely natural level, can be so severe, and yet whose ability to instruct and to embody that which gives our lives real meaning is so much greater than their own.
In my own case, in retrospect I don’t think I had as yet fully embraced my role—my vocation—as a father before Dominic was born. Called to imitate our heavenly Father, the human father ought to give of himself for the greater good of his family. Yes, he should provide for his family’s material needs, he should provide protection, but most importantly he ought provide love. Sin, of course, seeks to impede that and to turn men—fathers—inward. Speaking generally, though more or less accurately, I think, men can tend to identify themselves with their work, with their dealings with the outside world. If this becomes inordinate, they become too easily wrapped up in themselves, and thus lose sight of the service they ought to be rendering first and foremost to their families.
In many ways, and without getting into specifics, I think this is what had happened to me. In some respects, my wife had become a kind of “single parent.”
Dominic changed all that. He has opened me up to a whole other world. A world of service providers (therapists, special needs educators, and the like), a world of parents who have special needs children of various sorts (and where, one learns rather quickly, someone always has it worse), but most of all of a simple world of love. Dominic has been a round-the-clock lesson in how to love and receive love. Dominic goes without so many pleasures in life. And yet he bears all with such exemplary forbearance and with such cheer and good humor. Dominic reminds me every day that what he needs most importantly is love. Whatever I give for his sake—time (so much time), especially, whether when feeding him, driving him to therapy, stretching him—it pales in comparison to what he gives me.
When I complain and lose patience, I look at him, who complains and grows impatient so rarely. When I lose sight of what is most important in life, Dominic, who is so eager to show love and so content to receive it, returns me to it.
So this Father’s Day, as I recall with pride how I felt as a father to see my son embraced by the Holy Father on Easter Sunday, and to behold the world—the world!—be moved by this embrace as a result, I wish to give gratitude to God for the gift of my son Dominic, who has moved me his entire life.
Since he was born on Father’s Day nine years ago, Dominic has taught me what it means to be a true husband and father. For a father who continues to struggle to overcome himself, one could not ask for a greater Father’s Day gift than that.
Dr. Paul Gondreau is a professor of theology at Providence College in Rhode Island. Last semester, while he and his family were living in Rome as he taught a class at the campus there, his son Dominic who has cerebral palsy was embraced by Pope Francis as he toured St. Peters Square on Easter Sunday. The moment was captured in an iconic photo which now appears on the back cover of a new book by Robert Moynihan, Pray for Me.