This spring will be decidedly different than the previous one for the Schiltz family of suburban Chicago. Last April youngest son Fintan returned home from the hospital with a donated heart. This year, he’ll enjoy the warming sunshine and the budding flowers, unaware of how close he came to never seeing the wonders all around him.

“He’s doing great,” says his mom, Gina. “He takes medication but, other than that, he’s a normal 1 1/2-year-old. He’s happy and healthy.”

Fintan’s physician, Dr. Jeffrey Gossett, a cardiologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, is amazed by the toddler’s progress. “He’s done extremely well,” he says. “He was resilient, despite the demands placed on him. He’s a happy child, surrounded by a string of siblings.”

Fintan’s health is not the only thing that has changed. He’s now a big brother. His younger sister, the sixth Schiltz sibling, was born Oct. 1, the feast of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, her middle namesake. “We’re open to new life,” says dad Mark. “We always have been. God blessed us with another treasure.”

Meanwhile, through their faith, he blessed the Church with a powerful testimony to the worthiness of every fight for life.

Within a few days of his birth on Sept. 18, 2007, doctors knew Fintan’s heart wasn’t working properly. When conservative treatments failed, doctors told the Schiltzes their baby wouldn’t survive without a heart transplant.

During Fintan’s seven-month hospital stay, a time of emotional ups and downs, the Schiltzes called on Christ to steady their hearts.

“Our faith was the foundation that kept us strong from the beginning, when we first heard,” says Mark, who adds that the whole family spent much time before the Blessed Sacrament.

“To see your own child go through terrible suffering is tough to witness,” says Mark. “We don’t know why, but God allows it. He’s got a plan. It’s a matter of trusting in his will.”

Gina recalls: “At first, our prayers were ‘Make him better,’ but we came to the conclusion that we needed to pray for peace and acceptance of God’s will. It was a long haul after that, but, every moment it got hard, we prayed. God’s peace got us through.”

Even during the deepest moments of doubt. “We would fall, get nervous and anxious,” says Gina. “Then we realized we needed to put ourselves back into God’s loving arms.”

Throughout Fintan’s hospitalization, the family spoke openly about their faith. “We’re proud to be Catholic,” Mark says.

That’s why the Schiltzes volunteered when a Chicago Sun-Times reporter wanted to do a story about a family spending Christmas at the hospital. “We felt it was a story of faith you don’t see often in the secular media,” Gina explains.

The Schiltzes’ faith made an impression on many who witnessed it.

“It was very gratifying to see how strong they are as a family,” says Gossett. “They’re remarkable people.”

As the Schiltzes pastor, Msgr. Joseph Linster of St. Patrick Catholic Church in their hometown of St. Charles, Ill., says, “They’re a pro-life couple very much involved with raising a family.”

Mark offers simple advice for parents who are faced with the serious illness of a child. “Really commit yourself to your faith and prayer,” he says. “We say a family Rosary every day. Go to church. Fortunately, two bocks away from the hospital was St. Clement’s. We would make visits there daily.”

Adds Gina, “Pray for peace and strength. God will give it to you. My No. 1 advice is to realize that it’s in God’s hands. When I was stressing out, I reminded myself he was in the best hands of all.”

And, she adds, be sure to look for God’s grace around you.

“So many people were praying for us and Fintan,” Gina remembers. “You could feel it. People’s prayers really lifted us up. We could see God’s presence so much.”

“There were many beautiful things that happened as a result,” Mark says. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of people came together to support our family — the whole community, really. You know that makes God happy. What a beautiful thing to come out of a terrible thing.”

‘We Have a Heart’

Their hospital Christmas had a welcome visitor: Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, who visits Children’s Memorial each Christmas.

“He’s a peaceful, holy man — very down-to-earth. It was a beautiful experience. He blessed Fintan and our family,” Mark says.

“We had a sense of peace having him bless him,” Gina adds. “That night, we got the call. There’s an obvious miracle right there.”

After the family celebrated Christmas with Mark’s parents, they received the gift they’d been praying for the last three months.

“At 10 to midnight on Christmas, the phone rang,” Mark says. “We knew who it was without looking at the caller ID. They said, ‘We think we have a heart.’ We were so excited and nervous, we couldn’t sleep.”

Then another call came at 3 a.m., telling them, “This is it.”

The family rushed to the hospital. “We get there and see the Sun-Times with a picture of Gina and Fintan on the cover. That was neat,” Mark says.

Fintan received his new heart on Dec. 26.

“It was the feel-good story of the year,” recalls Gossett. “The cardinal came and blessed him, and we got the [transplant] offer within 24 hours of that.”

Soon, the rest of the local media came to cover the story. As Mark puts it, “God used Fintan and our family to spread a message of faith, hope and family.”

“A lot of people sent us letters. A lot of people were touched by our story,” Gina says. “It meant a lot to us.”

But the joy was bittersweet: Another baby had to die so that Fintan could get his new heart. To this day, they pray for the family who lost their child that Christmas Day.

“It’s part of what makes him him,” Gina says of Fintan’s new heart. Aside from that priceless gift, God’s constant love has meant the most to the family.

“We were able, through grace, to see this as an opportunity to deepen our faith and grow from it,” says Mark.

“It was a blessing,” adds Gina. “As hard as it was — and I would never want to go through it again — suffering can be a blessing. We tend to forget that those are the times that bring you closer to God. We had a strong faith before, but it’s nothing compared to what it has become.”

Amy Smith is the

Register’s copy editor.