Eli the Evangelizer

Children with special needs can be super evangelizers.

Children with special needs can be super evangelizers. One Lafayette, La., family — plus countless others who have read or heard about a child named Eli — know that firsthand.

The story begins when Chad and Ashley Judice received news that the second child they were expecting had spina bifida — where babies’ spinal columns do not close all of the way — a condition that, when identified in utero, leads to abortion 80% of the time.

Although Eli was diagnosed with the most severe form and endured major surgeries on his brain and spine when he was only three days old, today he is a joyful 6-year-old; he is above average in intelligence and a real talker — and, recently, a walker, too.

Eli’s story is the stuff of miracles.

From a prenatal diagnosis, the opening in his spine should have been baseball-sized, but after much prayer, it was the size of a 50-cent piece; and as he grew, he was doing things medical science said he could not.

Then, at the end of Holy Week in 2011, he needed two consecutive surgeries on a large cyst, which was preventing the shunt that drains the fluid protecting his brain and spinal cord from working properly. He would need a third major surgery on Easter Monday, but he had already been under anesthesia for 48 hours — and fears were that he could not tolerate anymore.

But following many prayers seeking the intercession of Blessed Francis Seelos, whose shrine was a mile from the hospital, the cyst shrank 75%-80% — overnight — eliminating the need for the operation and causing Eli’s surgeon to say he had never seen anything like that in his 40 years as a pediatric neurosurgeon.

Eli’s dad says that was just one of many miracles Eli’s story has brought others, beginning with himself.

A teacher in a Catholic high school, Judice has told these stories in two books: Waiting for Eli: A Father’s Journey From Fear to Faith and Eli’s Reach: On the Value of Human Life and the Power of Prayer (both from Acadian House Publishing).

Judice also has told the story on EWTN’s The World Over and many other Catholic venues — all because of Eli. (Any proceeds are used for Eli’s medical care. See ChadJudice.com.)

“Once we had first discovered his condition, I made a commitment to spend my off period [at school] praying for Eli and asking God to heal him through the intercession of the Blessed Mother,” Judice explained. He prayed the Rosary daily, which he continues, and many of his students and their parents have joined him.

“The greatest opportunity we have to grow in our faith is during our trials, difficulties and sufferings,” he said.

Judice said that once his daily struggle was for perfection and control. “I have a child who tells me that’s an illusion,” he explained. “We’re all broken [and have] that thing we struggle with and how we deal with [it] — on our own or do we surrender it to God? That’s what Eli’s story is.”

Mom Ashley, a neonatal nurse, already had a quiet, confident faith and trust in the face of anything difficult, giving her worries to God by following Padre Pio’s counsel: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”

“It’s hard knowing your child will be born with issues,” she noted. “They may not have the life you want for them.” People say the child is going to suffer, “but I think it’s more about us: how it’s going to affect our life.”

Many don’t think of one basic fact, she added. “He [Eli] knows he has some limitations, but everybody does — a limitation for something.”

“We all have crosses in our lives,” Chad added. “Put your cross in the place of this little boy, and you’re going to relate to everything in that book. Sometimes it takes an Eli — somebody else’s story of suffering and how they embrace it — so that folks can find Christ and his cross in the midst of their own.”

And faith helps one see children with special needs from a divine perspective. “If you see them with the eyes of God, this is not a tragedy. You see his victory in their lives,” he said. “It’s not easy all the time, but the victories that come from their struggles far outweigh the struggles themselves.”

Judice shared how people have been moved to deeper faith and recognition of God. Two couples with prenatal diagnoses refused abortions and lovingly embraced their special children, and a prison inmate who hadn’t prayed in 30 years returned to prayer and God.

But “you don’t have to have a child with special needs or be in a crisis pregnancy to get something from the story and grow in your Catholic faith,” Judice said.

“Chad Judice has touched countless hearts with the story of his son Eli,” observed Randy Hain, who included the story in his new book Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for Fathers of Children With Special Needs. “At the heart of it, Chad and Ashley have courageously embraced life and God’s plan. There is much we can all learn from this amazing family.”

Father Matthew Higginbotham, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Crowley, La., believes Chad Judice was drawn “closer to the Lord in a way that might not have ever happened if not for Eli.”

“This child’s fragile nature brought him to a prayer life and spirituality that was a revolution in his life,” said Father Higginbotham.

“No one can teach us love and compassion better than children with special needs,” he added. “The Lord brings forth from us a love and compassion we never knew we had.”

Eli’s story is proof positive.

Joseph Pronechen is the

Register’s staff writer.

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EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.