Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
UPDATE: Originally posted Oct. 16, this update contains results of the race that had an “extra” or two that made a most fitting addition.
When Austin Ruse was going to rename his Down syndrome fundraising team, he had no doubt who to honor and why. It was Brendan Kelly.
Ruse, the president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), shared in writing one story among many about young Brendan, the son of Frank and Maura Kelly.
It happened on Nov. 26, 2008. That day, at a major hotel in Mumbai, India, Islamic terrorists set off bombs, trapping hundreds of tourists and businessmen. Outside, the terrorists with machine guns began an assault intent on killing everyone inside.
An American businessman hid in the air-conditioning duct in the hotel ceiling, terrified of the bomb explosions and machine gunfire. He made one phone call to, of all places, Great Falls, Va., to ask Brendan’s father for his son’s prayers, “so that he would be delivered from almost certain, horrifying death at the hands of fanatics.”
Brendan was 9 years old. And he had Down syndrome. For most of his life, he had suffered severely from leukemia.
The man in Mumbai didn’t think twice about who to call because he, like many others, knew Brendan was close to God. The man was among Brendan’s many friends who turned to him for help.
After Brendan prayed for his friend, Ruse related, “He walked into his father’s study and said the man would be rescued that very night … and he was.”
Frank Kelly said the man in the hotel, his friend, is now in New Jersey, and although he and Brendan never met in person, they spoke often over the phone when Brendan would be scheduled for medical tests during, of all hours, midnight or 2am. To take Brendan’s mind off his nervousness about the tests, Kelly would have his son call the friend who was then in Hong Kong and himself praying for Brendan.
“Though Brendan had Down syndrome and suffered from leukemia, he had the most remarkable relationship with God and his Son and, through them, brought many people to Christ,” noted Ruse.
Brendan would always pray and also willingly suffer for others. He had the kind of direct, front-door access into heaven that only saints have.
Speaking of saints, he even had a special personal time with a saint — John Paul II. More on their meeting in a minute.
Rick Santorum wrote about the special connection between Brendan and the Santorums' youngest daughter, Bella. When she was born, doctors told Rick and his wife, Karen, that Bella had the genetic condition Trisomy 18 and would live only days or weeks, not years.
In 2008, when Bella was on a ventilator, Brendan was receiving chemotherapy yet again for leukemia.
“Getting a 10-year-old to take medicine that makes him violently ill is not easy,” wrote Santorum, “but during that time, Brendan would courageously swallow the pills or take the injection and offer up his suffering as a plea to Jesus to heal Bella. His father, Frank, told me that when the pain was the worst, Brendan would repeatedly groan, ‘I love you, Bella.’”
That was 2008. Despite doctors’ predictions, Bella is alive today.
Frank Kelly noted that Brendan did get to meet Bella.
And he would offer prayers and his sufferings for so many others, too.
“He really loved God and knew he had a mission here,” he told me. Brendan battled leukemia for 13 of 15 years.
“He would look at the doctor before each chemo session and say, ‘I am offering this up for you.’” His parents would ask, “Who are you offering this up for today?” Brendan had his list of people, and through chemo sessions, eight to 10 hours long, throwing up, “he made it worthwhile. He knew he was here for a reason.”
“He offered all his pain for others,” Ruse noted at The Catholic Thing, describing how, just weeks before he died of leukemia, in 2013, just short of his 16th birthday, “massive steroid treatments to fight the ravages of chemo” caused large sores to cover Brendan's whole body. “There was no place you could touch him that did not hurt. Except his head.” His aunt was only able to pat him there, yet “Brendan said, ‘Aunt Kelly, I am so happy. All you need to be happy is to open your heart to Jesus.’”
Ruse calls Brendan a mystic and relates moving stories of him. “He carried on a continuous conversation with Jesus and his guardian angel.” He wouldn’t pass a church without blowing a kiss and shouting, “Hi, Jesus.” Ruse noted it was so normal and natural that an Opus Dei priest still gives sermons about this as “an advanced state of the interior life.”
Brendan loved the Eucharist so much that when chemo devastated his immune system, he would wait with his family in their car outside of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, and at Communion time, Father Alexander Drummond, their pastor, would bring him the Eucharist. Brendan went to Mass every day.
Last year, days short of his 16th birthday, Brendan died.
Although Ruse never met Brendan, he knows his family and the remarkable story of Brendan.
Now, to honor him, Ruse renamed his cycling team Team Brendan Kelly/C-Fam. The team rides for Best Buddies International, a charity created to improve the lives of those touched by Down syndrome, both individuals and their families.
On Saturday, Oct. 18, the newly named Team Brendan Kelly/C-Fam participated in the annual Audi Best Buddies Challenge, a 62-mile (100 kilometers) biking route around Washington and into Virginia to raise funds for the charity inspired by Sargent and Eunice Shriver, founders of the Special Olympics. Best Buddies is run by their son, Anthony.
“We rode for Brendan,” Ruse announced. “We also rode for all those Brendans who never made it out of the womb because their moms and dads were too frightened about what life held out for their children diagnosed with Down syndrome. What they did not know was Brendan’s story, how someone others think of as ‘retarded’ can and do live amazing lives and change all those around them for the better.
“(Yet) most folks do not know that 90% of children diagnosed in the womb with Down syndrome are aborted.”
Only the first-place finishers in raising money for Best Buddies got to make a speech at the gala event at the end of the race. Ruse was hoping for that, but he came in second.
But that’s not the end of the story.
“It was an amazing day,” Ruse explained. The team also came in second place, raising $85,000, only beat by the Audi team, which raised more than $90,000. And team members came in second, third and fourth in individual fundraising. The team received the Citizen Cup, given to the non-corporate team raising the most money.
And Ruse won the 100k ride.
But the best was yet to come.
“Brendan got a lot of recognition, most of all, importantly, by Anthony Shriver,” Ruse said. Shriver not only mentioned Brendan at the gala, but he also sent a memo around to participants, sponsors and employees with the following addition:
P.S. I’d like to share with you the story of Brendan Kelly, a beautiful young man with Down syndrome who suffered from leukemia. Inspired by Brendan, one of our top fundraisers, Austin Ruse, captained Team Brendan Kelly/C-Fam and participated in this year’s event in honor of Brendan’s life.
And Shriver linked to a story about Brendan, saying to readers to please take a moment to read it.
That still was not all at the gala. Ruse described how, after he got the award, “Anthony Shriver gave me the mic and invited me to give a talk from the stage. I didn’t expect to be invited, because I came in second."
He got to give his pro-life talk after all. He told how his team rode for Brendan Kelly and all those with Down syndrome, “but we also ride for all those children who don’t make it out of the womb because the mother got a challenging diagnosis.
“We want people to understand that people with intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, are sent to you by God to teach us how to love.
“And Anthony Shriver and Best Buddies helps people understand that, and therefore helps women make the right choice when faced with that difficult diagnosis.”
Frank Kelly knows and relates this to his son Brendan’s ability to make such a difference in the lives of others. He said, “My personal view is this is why Down children are being aborted: It’s the devil himself, more than anything else. These kids are incredibly huge gateways of grace. They change everybody’s life.”
Brendan did. His dad shared how “Brendan prayed for John Paul II every night. He offered up a lot for John Paul.” He had a photo of the saint-pope in his room. “When John Paul died, I was crying and had to tell him John Paul died. He said, ‘So he is in heaven.’ He was a very sensitive little soul. He would cry if a pet died. That night he just knew.”
The two saints met years earlier.
In 2001, already diagnosed with leukemia, Brendan wished to visit the pope. He did with his family through the Make a Wish Foundation.
That Sept. 4, he and his family were at Castel Gandolfo for the Holy Father’s Mass. Afterwards, when the pope came into the room to greet pilgrims, Brendan ran to John Paul II and held his arm the whole time. The pope loved it and would wink or wave at Brendan during the time he was greeting each of the pilgrims. Read the whole story here.
When John Paul the Great finally left the room, Brendan shouted, “Good-bye Pope.” It brought the pontiff right back, and he took pictures with the family.
Frank Kelly noted a later connection too — only the kind heaven could arrange.
“Brendan died on April 27 of 2013, one year to the day John Paul II was canonized. And he died at 3:30 in the morning — one year to the hour [with the time difference] of John Paul II’s canonization."
Who might have greeted him? Said Kelly, “I told my family it was a big Polish hug he got.”
Today, a beautiful, large portrait of Brendan, commissioned by Father Drummond, is hanging in the parish hall. (Brendan was an altar boy, too.) He was “always innocent, but surely a regular boy,” his father said.
Kelly said it can be “a strange thing to have people come up and say they are praying to your son. Still, it’s beautiful and comforting. It’s not what I expected when I grew up to be a husband, father and businessman — to hear people say they’re praying to your son and asking him to help them or say he is helping them with some things.”
People ask for prayer cards that have a picture of him on one side and a prayer for his intercession on the other.
Surely Brendan interceded for Ruse and Team Brendan Kelly/C-Fam so others got to hear about the infinite worth of children with Down syndrome, who make an infinitely positive difference in people’s lives.
Our dearest Brendan,
Your time on earth was difficult and full of suffering. You faced your challenges by being brave, loving and close to Jesus.
Please help me to be brave, like you, in times of trial, whether physical or mental. Please help me to always find the joy in life.
Please help me to love others as you loved everyone.
Please help me accept all suffering and offer it up for others, as you did.
Please help me to know that Jesus is my friend and by my side.
Please ask your good friend, Jesus, for the favor of__________________________.