LITTLEST SUFFERING SOULS
Children Whose Short Lives Point Us to Christ
By Austin Ruse
Tan Books, 2017
152 pages, $24.95
When I was in seventh grade, searching for a confirmation saint, I was drawn to St. Gemma Galgani, who lived at the turn of the 19th century in Lucca, Italy. She only lived to age 24 and spent most of her life offering herself in her physical ailments and spiritual sufferings as a victim soul for the salvation of others. I chose her mostly, however, for her devotion to the Eucharist, and it was Christ Crucified present in the Eucharist for whom she held a great love. It seems that a great devotion to the Eucharist, and to the suffering of Christ, is crucial for the kind of holy suffering described by Austin Ruse in his new book, Littlest Suffering Souls.
Ruse takes the reader through the sufferings, illnesses and deaths of six Catholic children, Little Nellie of Holy God, Venerable Antonietta Meo, Mary Ann Long, Brendan Kelly, Margaret Leo and Audrey Santo. And like St. Gemma, all of them had an intense love for and desire to receive the Eucharist. Little Nellie of Holy God knew and understood the Real Presence at the age of 4 as she sought to receive the Holy Eucharist while dying of tuberculosis. She never complained in her suffering, but merely desired to be united with Holy God. Nellie and all of the children in the book loved the Suffering Christ. They knew that their sufferings could participate in the suffering of Christ and “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). These children demonstrate the fact that because Christ sanctified suffering, none of our sufferings have to be empty or meaningless.
Despite that, it is very difficult to think about children undergoing such severe sufferings. As I read this book, I found myself thinking constantly about my own young children, who have never had to undergo such suffering. My 2-year-old — like Brendan, who suffered from leukemia as a toddler at the same age — loves to venerate the cross. One of my children has expressed a desire to enter Carmel, like sweet Audrey did. They have a gift of faith that adults often let go of. But I also thought of the children of friends and acquaintances who have undergone such sufferings. Death and suffering are not things that we can protect our children from, despite our best efforts, but God does not abandon his little ones when they undergo hardships.
It is said that God gives children special grace to avoid serious sin, but I think that he also gives them a special grace to know and love him. The children Ruse writes about are not typical children; their faith and their endurance in suffering was a unique gift above and beyond the normal faith of children. They, as suffering children, were given an even greater grace, and through social media, I hear about children like them all the time. It seems that children are more disposed to be sympathetic to the Crucified Christ. They see his suffering in images, they ponder his wounds, and their little love can be made great by the grace of God. When Jesus said that unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, this is what he was speaking of — a simple, faith-filled openness to grace in all circumstances. The question is: Will we learn from them?
Susanna Spencer writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.