This Heroic Father ‘Laid Down His Life for His Son’

Holy Week reminds us that there is no indifference in the heart of God for his children. He knows you, loves you, and desires you to be with him forever.

Thomas Vander Woude
Thomas Vander Woude (photo: Courtesy of Christendom College)

This excerpt from The Father by Father Mark-Mary Ames is reprinted with permission. The Register covered the real-life account of the heroic love Tom Vander Woude had for his son here.

Thomas “Tom” Vander Woude, whom his grandkids called Papa, loved all his sons with a deep and sacrificial love. But his youngest son, Joseph, referred to affectionately as Josie, had a special place in his heart and in the hearts of the entire family. Part of what gave Josie this special place was the fact that he was born with Down syndrome.

Mr. Vander Woude was a “man’s man.” He was an athlete and a coach; he ran every day and handed on this discipline to his sons, who carried on the Vander Woude legacy in sports. But with Josie, Tom’s athleticism and discipline were manifested not in competing for a championship but in more profound ways.

Having Down syndrome meant that some of Josie’s development was different from other children. One activity Josie struggled with, but needed to learn because of how it helped brain development, was crawling. So, to be able to spend as much time as possible with Josie teaching him how to crawl, Tom had special socks and pads made allowing him to spend hours crawling beside his son.

One of the gifts of Josie’s situation was that he was usually at home. So, over the years, when Tom was working on the family farm, Josie would often go outside and spend time with his dad. The day that tragedy would strike began like any other day. Tom had woken up early and gone to daily Mass, which, along with the daily Rosary, was the foundation of his life. Then he went to work on the farm, inviting Josie to join him. While he was working, Tom suddenly heard an alarming sound of cracking and breaking. What had broken was the lid to the septic cistern, and Josie had fallen in. Without hesitation, Tom dove into the cistern, took hold of Josie, and held him up so he could breathe.

Mrs. Vander Woude, alerted to what had happened, immediately called 911 and cried out to God. She ran to them and could see the heartbreaking sight of Josie barely hanging on in the cistern. From above, she did her best to help keep Josie up, but in the struggle to save Josie, through exhaustion and due to the toxic gases, Tom eventually lost consciousness and fell below the sewage level. Josie would survive and make a full recovery, but Tom wouldn’t survive.

At his wake, the line to pay respects to Tom went on for hours. The perpetual adoration chapel where he had made a weekly Holy Hour from 2 to 3 a.m. (choosing that time because it was one of the toughest shifts) was renamed for him. His sons, one of whom is a Catholic priest, to this day keep the tradition of making a weekly Holy Hour at two o’clock in the morning in honor of their father.

Father Vander Woude once shared that perhaps some might look at a healthy father losing his life to save a son with Down syndrome as a waste. But for Mr. Vander Woude, Josie was simply his son, and he would have freely laid down his life to save any of his children.

It was at the close of a FOCUS recruitment weekend that I first heard this story from one of Tom’s granddaughters. In many ways, hearing this example of the love of this good father for his son was the spark that led to this book of meditations, as it led me to reflect on the way a father’s love can lead us to the heart of God the Father.

The Father loves his sons and daughters so deeply, and he desires our salvation so viscerally, that he sent his Son, Jesus, to die for us.

God’s Word

“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16).

“Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5–11).

What It Means for Us

There is no indifference in the heart of God for his children. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we read that the father, seeing his son at a distance, ran to him, embraced him, kissed him, and rejoiced that his son who was lost had been found. This pursuit of the father for his children is not just a parable; it is a historical reality. It is the reality of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to save us.

Jesus freely emptied himself, leaving the right hand of the Father. Born in Bethlehem and growing up in Nazareth, he literally crawled among us. He spent his whole life pursuing each of us. Ultimately, he took upon himself all of the sewage and mess — that is, all of the sin — of humanity.

As Mr. Vander Woude freely laid down his life for his son, so it is true in an even more exemplary way that Jesus Christ died for you and for me. He took our sin upon himself and freely laid down his life so that you and I, poor and weak and insignificant as we are, could be saved. He died for us so we could have the opportunity of spending eternity in heaven with him.

Why? Because nothing is more significant to our loving Father than his children. He knows you, loves you, and desires you to be with him forever. In the end, this is the most important truth you could ever wrestle with and the most important gift you could ever receive: your Father’s love.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, may your passion for me free me from any temptation to doubt my value in the world. May the depths you were willing to go in pursuit of me move my heart to gratitude, but also to contrition and repentance for times I have doubted or rejected your love for me. Help me to receive the gift of your pursuit of me. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.