ROME — The father of a boy with special needs, whose iconic hug from Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention, says that the Pope in that instant held “all people” with disabilities.
“The Pope was embracing all the impoverished in that moment, and it was a profound blessing,” Paul Gondreau told Catholic News Agency April 2. “Not just for me and my wife,” he added, “but all parents of special-needs children or all those who are close to special-needs people.”
“Who would think that a little boy with such severe physical limitations would so profoundly move the world?”
Media outlets across the globe have zeroed in on Gondreau’s 9-year-old son after he was photographed receiving a hug and kiss from Pope Francis following Easter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica on March 31.
The moment, however, “almost didn’t happen” said Gondreau, who teaches theology at Providence College’s Rome campus.
His family — who hail from Rhode Island and are living in Rome while Gondreau spends a semester there teaching — arrived only an hour and 15 minutes early to the square.
Along with Dominic, the Gondreaus have four other children: 16-year-old Alena Maria, 12-year-old Lucas and 5-year-old twins Maria and Junia.
Although they were too late to get good seats, a Swiss Guard was able to move Dominic and his mother, Christina, to a special section for those with disabilities.
When they arrived, the boy caught the attention of an usher named Augustino, who “got it into his head” that Dominic would meet the Holy Father when he toured the square in the popemobile.
As Pope Francis was approaching, Augustino instructed Christina to take Dominic out of his chair and to hold him up to receive a blessing.
She did so, but the Pope, who is “very clearly energized by the big crowds,” was looking in the other direction and passed them by.
“The usher was apologetic,” Gondreau said, “but my wife, who was this close to the Pope, still thought it was fantastic.”
As the Holy Father began a second round of greeting to the crowd of 250,000, Augustino enlisted the help of other ushers, who caught the attention of the popemobile’s driver and signaled him to stop.
“They just lifted him up to the Pope, and everyone knows what happened from that point on,” the boy's father said.
It was not until his oldest son caught a glimpse of the video screen and called out his brother’s name that Gondreau realized what was happening.
“I was immediately moved to tears, along with my son Lucas,” he said. “I will always cherish the memory of hearing my son Lucas say, ‘It’s Dominic!’”
As he looked up, Gondreau saw that Pope Francis “held Dominic and gave Dominic a kiss and a hug and just cradled him for a moment.”
‘Sign of Contradiction’
The fact that this moment has captured the world’s attention is “profound,” Gondreau said.
“It’s a sign of contradiction: because the world that repudiates Christ is moved by a boy who makes little sense apart from Christ.”
Because those with special needs “share more intimately in Christ’s cross” than anyone else, they also “give more profound witness to Christ’s love and are more powerful instruments of Christ’s redemptive mercy,” the father said.
His son has been showing those he comes in contact with “how to love” his whole life, Gondreau said. This moment is simply the one that God chose for him to show that to the world.
“This is how God works: He chooses the weak and the vulnerable to move and to shame the strong and the wise, and he’s been doing this since the very beginning of salvation history.”
Gondreau explained that Dominic was born three and a half months prematurely, but was in good health. However, shortly after birth, he got an infection, and his body had to dedicate all its resources to fighting the illness.
“That’s what caused the cerebral palsy,” Gondreau said.
Now 9, the little boy is “cognitively entirely normal,” but he does have severe physical limitations. In a culture that “reduces human dignity to productivity,” and a world where “abortion is so widespread,” Gondreau said his son’s life “makes no sense.”
However, when seen through Christ’s eyes, it is clear his son’s purpose is to love and to teach others how to love: “He instructs us in a very profound way, in a very powerful way.”
Dominic’s gift was illustrated perfectly, he noted, when a woman in the crowd called out to the child’s mother after the hug, saying, “You know your son is here to show others how to love.”
Said Gondreau: “It was like a heaven-sent confirmation to her of what she has suspected.”