A Special Mission

Family Matters: Pro-Life Witness


When Austin Ruse was going to rename his fundraising team to help Down syndrome, he had no doubt who to honor and why: Brendan Kelly.

Ruse, the president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), has been inspired by young Brendan, the son of Frank and Maura Kelly.

“Though Brendan had Down syndrome and suffered from leukemia, he had the most remarkable relationship with God and his Son and, through them, brought many people to Christ,” noted Ruse.

“He really loved God and knew he had a mission here,” Brendan’s father said.

Brendan battled leukemia for 13 of 15 years. Brendan had his special list of people to pray for during each chemotherapy session. His spiritual life was a witness, too. He wouldn’t pass a church without blowing a kiss and shouting, “Hi, Jesus!” Brendan went to Mass every day.

Former Republican senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum shared the special connection Brendan had with his youngest daughter, Bella, who was born with trisomy 18. “It was remarkable the way Brendan always thought of Bella. Brendan was Bella’s little benefactor,” he said. “He was the angel who would pray for Bella since the time she was a baby.”

Over time, Brendan and Bella even got to meet more than once. “There was an immediate attraction between Brendan and Bella,” Santorum said. “Brendan really had a special heart for her.”

As Santorum shared, “His father, Frank, told me that, when taking medicine or therapy, Brendan would often be nauseous and in pain, and he would often give up that mortification for Bella. He would sometimes be writhing in pain, and (Frank said) he would be chanting, ‘This is for you, Bella.’”

In 2013, days short of his 16th birthday, Brendan died.

Although Ruse never met Brendan, to honor him, Ruse renamed his cycling team “Team Brendan Kelly/C-Fam.” The team rides for Best Buddies International, a charity created to improve the lives of those touched by Down syndrome, both individuals and their families. Last fall, the newly named team participated in the annual Audi Best Buddies Challenge, a 62-mile (100 kilometers) biking route around Washington and into Virginia to raise funds for the charity inspired by Sargent and Eunice Shriver, founders of the Special Olympics. Best Buddies is run by their son Anthony.

“We rode for Brendan,” Ruse recalled. “We also rode for all those Brendans who never made it out of the womb because their moms and dads were too frightened about what life held out for their children diagnosed with Down syndrome.”

“What they did not know was Brendan’s story: how someone others think of as ‘retarded’ can and do live amazing lives and change all those around them for the better. We want people to understand that people with intellectual disabilities and Down syndrome are sent to us by God to teach us how to love,” Ruse said at the post-ride gala.

Frank Kelly knows firsthand how special people have special gifts: “These kids are incredibly huge gateways of grace. They change everybody’s life.”

Brendan certainly did. His dad shared how “Brendan prayed for John Paul II every night. He offered up a lot for John Paul.” He had a photo of the saint-pope in his room. “When John Paul died, I was crying and had to tell him John Paul died. He said, ‘So he is in heaven.’”

The two met years earlier. In 2001, already diagnosed with leukemia, Brendan wished to visit the pope. He did so, with his family, through the Make a Wish Foundation. That September, he and his family were at Castel Gandolfo for the Holy Father’s Mass. Afterwards, when the pope came into the room to greet pilgrims, Brendan ran to John Paul II and held his arm the whole time. The pope loved it. (Read the whole story at NCRegister.com/site/article/the_popes_friend_brendan/.)

“What more profound statement in a culture of death than to have a child with a cognitive disability be an affirmation this way?” Santorum explained. “Brendan was extraordinary. He was an incredible vessel for the Lord and incredible witness for him. That’s what saints do: They bring people to Christ by the example of their lives.”

Joseph Pronechen is the

Register’s staff writer.

Read more of Brendan's remarkable story here.