Patti Armstrong is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious. She has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their 10 children.
You don’t need coffee to wake up when there’s a rousing homily at morning Mass. Msgr. Tom Richter, rector of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bismarck, North Dakota, was especially fired up one morning. He warned us about “going to hell” not once, but twice.
The Gospel was Luke 16:19-31. Lazarus lay dying outside the rich man’s house, ignored, except for the dogs that licked his wounds. When both men died, Lazarus went to heaven but the rich man did not.
The rich man begged for mercy as he saw Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. Abraham reminded the rich man that he had not shown Lazarus mercy and, now, did not merit even a drop of water.
“The rich man needed Lazarus more than Lazarus needed the rich man,” Msgr. Richter explained. He repeated it, to let it sink in, then said: “If we don’t experience the need to give, we go to hell!”
Lazarus had been the rich man’s ticket out of hell, but he passed him by. Yet how often do we think of the needy people in our lives as doing us a favor? Usually we pat ourselves on the back for any good deed we do. Or, we skip the good deed altogether because needy people are so inconvenient.
Msgr. Richter then shared that when his brother Andy, who has Down syndrome, was born into their large family, he had many needs. In reality, however, Msgr. Richter said it was his family that needed Andy even more than Andy needed them.
As a writer, I have seen that same story play out over and over again. For instance, Tom Mahala shared in the book Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families, that when his daughter Grace was born after seven healthy sons, the announcement, “It’s a girl!” brought no joy. “Under different circumstances, I would have done back flips,” he said. “Instead, she was what I had feared. When I saw her almond-shaped eyes, my heart froze—Down’s syndrome.”
When he and his wife Bonnie learned that Grace had two holes in her heart and would need heart surgery in a few months, they had hope—that she would just die. The inconvenience would go away then. They knew that was no way for a parent to feel, but we don’t get to choose our feelings. They did, however, choose to pray and ask God to help them to love their daughter as they should.
By the time I interviewed Tom about his story, the word “love” did not do justice to how he and Bonnie feel about Grace. Their daughter had transformed their family.
“Her little personality began to captivate us and all the boys fell deeply in love with their little sister,” Tom explained. “They treat Grace differently than their brothers. I believe it is because through Grace, our hearts have grown. Her brothers constantly hug and kiss her and tell her they love her. The boys were gifted athletically, while Grace, who cannot even run or jump is gifted in love.”
Liz Gary shared a very similar story in Amazing Grace for the Catholic Heart about learning that their third child, Dustin, had Down syndrome. Her husband Mike had accepted it during the pregnancy, but Liz thought it was more than she could handle. She asked God to take Dustin’s life in utero.
Later, an additional diagnosis indicated that Dustin would likely not survive long enough to even be born. But by then, Liz had somehow fallen in love with her son.He defied the odds and baffled doctors when he was born without the additional condition that had clearly shown up in ultrasounds.
Not only did Dustin bless his family abundantly, but Liz also shared later in Amazing Grace for Married Couples that the love she and Mike had for Dustin ended up saving their marriage with a renewed love.
Getting back to Msgr. Richter’s homily, he closed by telling the congregation: “Run from the Cross and you run to hell! We need the Cross!” Then he prayed, asking our Lord to help us to feel the need of the cross.
Both the Garys and Mahalas had wanted to run from the cross of Down syndrome but they were pro-life, so abortion was never a consideration. Instead, the babies that shook up their worlds actually opened them to blessings beyond their imaginations.
The day before I wrote this, I read that Iceland aborts 100% of their babies with Down syndrome. This, despite studies that show 99% of people with Downs say they are happy. Other countries are not far behind with similar rates.
People are so worried about their own happiness, they foolishly run from the cross. Right to hell. Lord, help them to realize their need for forgiveness. Please open the eyes and hearts of your people so that we can receive all that you have to give us.