I didn't know Cathy. I never met her until I gave her Last Rites last week. As I stood by her bedside, I saw the same pained faces of those who loved her gathered around with me. Cathy had profound Down's Syndrome. Her life, by most people's standards, was severely limited by her disease. Yet, she had a profound effect on those around her. For 20 years, Cathy had been a resident at Ruth Jensen Village. Ruth Jensen Village is a residential set of group homes in Bowling Green, Missouri where those who suffer from such diseases are cared for and given great and loving care.
This gave me a unique moment in my priesthood; preparing a funeral homily for someone with such a profound disability. It got me thinking. Over the years, I have met many who have had a variety of disability and diseases. Many think these people as a curse. In the US, 90% of babies diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are aborted. Somehow these people are seen as burdens and impediments. In my own family, I have several nieces and nephews that are somewhere on the autism scale. Neither them, nor Cathy, nor anyone I have met with such disabilities are any less human than myself, any less worthy of compassion, friendship, and empathy than any other person. They have right to their dignity and integrity being upheld as much as anyone else. These people do present a challenge to us; and I believe that is what scares so many. How we treat such people says much more about us than it does them.
Cathy was incapable of sin. She lacked the capacity. What a blessing! She was never able to choose against God and fall out of the relationship extended to her through baptism. She certainly was among those that Jesus was speaking of when he said, "Let them come to me, to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven!" I cannot help but believe that she heard "Well done, My good and faithful servant, enter the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." I would imagine some might be thinking, "Hold on there, father! Really." Absolutely! Her whole life she offered those around her the chance at becoming better people. She offered, through her sufferings, the chance for people to rise to the greatest nobility within themselves to step outside of themselves and love unconditionally. Many will no doubt ask, "How can a loving God inflict such a person?" My answer is that it is not God, but man, that puts these qualitative standards upon the disabled, thinking them as something less than fully human because they suffer what they do. God sees them as He sees everyone: as someone worthy of His love and compassion.
I firmly believe what troubles us about people such as Cathy is not who they are, but who they reveal about who we are! I listen to my siblings and admire them a great deal. They do get down when there are setbacks with their children...all of them! They do rejoice in the victories of their children..all of them. I have never heard any of them differentiate their children into normal and abnormal children...but simply as their being their children...every single one of them. That everyone could have the same vision about all people, disabled or not. I see the compassion that they and their children show. I saw the compassion that the staff at Ruth Jensen had for Cathy and it makes me want to be a better person.
So many times, in funeral homilies, I make a point of pointing out that the limitations that life inflicts upon us are forever gone when we pass from this life. As I watched my dad deteriorate from Parkinson's, I took comfort in that it could no longer touch him. I have made the same observations about those who suffered from cancer and whole host of debilitating diseases. I look forward to seeing dad again with him at full strength. I look forward to meeting Cathy someday. I think it will be a wonderful conversation.