Jerome Lejeune (1926-1994) was a doctor and researcher who is considered the father of modern genetics. He was awarded the Kennedy Prize in 1962 for the discovery of Trisomy 21, the cause of Down syndrome.
Lejeune was a personal friend of Blessed Pope John Paul II, who appointed him the founding president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Four and a half years after the opening of the cause of canonization of Dr. Lejeune (June 28, 2007), and 18 years after his death, the diocesan process has ended, and his cause was sent to Rome with a Mass for life at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
Ombretta Salvucci received her Ph.D. at the Institute Gustave Roussy, Villejuif, a cancer research center just south of Paris. In 2000-2003 she did post-doctoral studies at the National Institutes of Health. In 2006, she returned to the NIH, where she remains a cancer researcher. She has a devotion to Lejeune, which inspired her to become involved in the cause for his canonization. She spoke recently about her experience at the Mass in Paris.
How did you first learn of the work of Dr. Lejeune?
At the end of 2006, when I took up a challenging cancer-research position at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., I had just undergone a professional drama that precipitated a personal crisis, which made it hard for me to face my life with a positive attitude. So, at this moment, I remembered a sentence that Father Luigi Giussani [founder of Communion and Liberation] kept saying during his life: “Pray always to the saints of our modern times who are close to your profession.” So, at this point, I wanted to have a saint within the scientific field who could help me, but I knew that it could be difficult to find, since most scientists think that there is an irreconcilable contradiction between science and faith.
One day, I read a random Zenit communiqué announcing that professor Jerome Lejeune, who had died of cancer in 1994, was on the road to beatification. I recalled during my Ph.D. research days in Paris learning about the incredible life and work of professor Lejeune, the geneticist who discovered the structural defects at the root of Down syndrome. This news struck me to the heart as a sign: I would begin to pray to Lejeune for help in my every need.
Since Father Giussani had always taught us that prayer is also a concrete gesture, I decided to print a picture of Dr. Lejeune and put it on my desk at work. When my colleagues asked me who the man in the photo was, I told them he was my best friend — even though I never met him during his life.
What has been your experience praying for his intercession?
My entire life changed; my attitude become one of hope and promise that affected my home, my work and all those around me. I become more optimistic and did less complaining. Everything started to become an occasion of grace.
Tell me about the Mass for the Servant of God on April 11, 2012, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The ceremony was really moving. The church was full, and everybody was participating with faith, singing and praying in unity. We were really one body. I was sitting in a pew close to the Lejeune family with some of my friends from America involved in Lejeune USA. Several children with Down syndrome assisted during the Mass: They read the petitions. Some of them were Lejeune’s patients; they came from over all Europe. I invited several people from Italy to attend the ceremony, and some of them came with great enthusiasm. For example, a friend, a priest in an Italian parish, was asked by the Lejeune family to concelebrate the Mass with 20 other priests. He came from Italy with some friends, and one of them was a lady in a wheelchair with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) who came to ask Dr. Lejeune to intercede for a miraculous cure. It was a particular grace for us to witness her great faith. I had asked the Lejeune family if she could go in front in the church, and they answered in a moving way: “The poor (in spirit) have to go in front!”
Then my invitation was also accepted by 20 students from the medical school of Bologna. They came for the Mass because they were moved and attracted by the legacy of Dr. Lejeune as a man and as a scientist. They wanted to continue his work in the future.
writes from Connecticut.