Mattie Stepanek — Child Poet and Peacemaker
“I choose to live until death, not spend the time dying until death occurs.”
Mattie Stepanek accrued some mighty endorsements in his short life. The child poet and peace advocate suffered from a rare neuromuscular condition, dysautonomic mytochondrial myopathy, which claimed his life in 2004 when he was only 13 years old. In the years leading up to his death, though, he touched the hearts of millions, becoming a frequent guest on shows such as “Oprah,” “Good Morning America” and “Larry King Live.” Maya Angelou saw him as a kindred spirit and fellow poet. Television talk show host Oprah Winfrey called him “a messenger for our times” and counted him as one of her all time most memorable guests in the 25-year history of her show. In a statement released after his death, Winfrey said that Mattie “was 13 in human years, but a very old soul so wise beyond his years.”
President Jimmy Carter befriended the young writer, and the two kept in touch via letters. Carter delivered a moving eulogy at Mattie's funeral, describing him as “the most extraordinary person I have ever known.” In Just Peace: A Message of Hope, a book co-authored by Mattie and President Carter, the President wrote:
I was touched by the depth of passion and awed by the firm resolve with which Mattie Stepanek pursued a dream that has evaded men and women throughout history. What began as a casual discourse, not too different from others I have had with inquisitive young people who have reached out to me, became a treasured and enlightening friendship that changed my life forever. With the purity of heart that only a child can possess, and the indomitable spirit of one who has survived more physical suffering than most adults will ever know, Mattie convinced me that his quest was not inconceivable. Inspired by his enthusiasm and without reservation, I committed to a partnership with him. ... These words of wisdom and inspiration came from the most remarkable person I have ever known.
But Mattie achieved the widest reach through five best-selling books of poetry he called his “Heartsongs” and through his collection of “peace essays.” The books became New York Times bestsellers and eventually sold more than two million copies.
And his mother Jeni Stepanek, who is herself afflicted with the genetic disease which took her four children, wrote Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs as a tribute to her beloved son. Jeni explained that Mattie wrote his first poem after the collapse of New York's Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001; and she hopes that Mattie's words will serve as a catalyst for changing mottos of “revenge” into credos of “rebuild.” The miracle of this young boy's cheerful holiness in the face of grave illness stands out on the pages of his mother's book.
Investigation May Lead to Mattie's Eventual Canonization
Despite the wide acclaim which Mattie earned in his lifetime, the most notable honor may be yet to come: Efforts are underway to investigate the child's personal holiness, to determine whether he is a candidate for sainthood. On Sept. 21, 2012, on the feast of St. Matthew and the International Day of Peace, the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Guild was officially launched, with the objective of investigating Mattie's life and virtues for the possible cause of canonization. In 2018, the Guild launched a new website (www.Mattie4Sainthood.org) to encourage those who have been touched by Mattie's deep faith and generous spirit to share their stories. The Mattie Stepanek Guild and Mattie's mother, Jeni Stepanek, understand that the Catholic Church moves carefully, and that canonization is a lengthy process requiring extensive research, interviews and study. But their investigative work moves forward. Jeni Stepanek, in an op-ed for CNN on May 19, 2019, explained the virtue she saw in her son. “What matters even more than the collective mementos of wisdom he left behind,” Jeni wrote,
...is the inspirational way Mattie celebrated and loved all people – diverse in age and ability and aspiration, and the way he appreciated and found meaning in the gift of moments that made up each day – even when burdens outweighed blessings, and even knowing that his time on earth would be brief.
Mattie died in his mother's arms on June 22, 2004, just a few weeks short of his 14th birthday. But in the months and years leading up to that inevitable passing, Mattie took every opportunity to encourage others and to share God's love with others. “I choose,” Mattie said, “to live until death, not spend the time dying until death occurs.”
Fifteen years later – on June 22, 2019 – Matty's life and spiritual legacy will be remembered at a Memorial Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Derwood, Maryland. The public is welcome to attend the Mass, which will begin at 11:00 a.m., and the reception which follows, hosted by Mattie's Guild.
The Fearless Joy That Comes With Faith
In his poem Heavenly Greeting, Mattie reflected on the day when he would meet God face to face, and looked forward to God's welcoming embrace.
For a long time,
I have wondered about
How You will meet me
When I die and come to
Live with You in Heaven.
I know You reach out
Your hand to welcome
Your people into Your home,
But I never knew if You
Reached out Your right hand,
Or if You
Reached out Your left hand.
But now I don't have to
Wonder about that anymore.
I asked my mommy and
She told me that You
Reach out both of Your hands,
And welcome us with
A great big giant hug.
I can't wait for my hug, God.