Summary of today’s show: When the Gondreau family of Rhode Island got the opportunity to live in Rome for a semester while dad Paul taught theology for Providence College’s Rome program, they saw it as an opportunity for their five children, including eight-year-old Dominic who has cerebral palsy. But on Easter Sunday, Dominic had a heart-stopping and emotional embrace with Pope Francis that was captured and broadcast around the world. Dr. Paul Gondreau joined Michael Lavigne and Scot Landry on today’s show to share how the moment came about and why he believes this was miraculous moment brought about by God to teach the world that Dominic and others like him have a special vocation to teach us how to love and through that love to rebuild His Church.
Listen to the show:
Watch the show via live video streaming or a recording later: BostonCatholicLive.com
Today’s host(s): Scot Landry
Today’s guest(s): Dr. Paul Gondreau and Michael Lavigne
Links from today’s show:
- “A Special Vocation to Show People How to Love”, CatholicMoralTheology.com
- “Megyn Kelly’s Emotional Interview With Dr. Paul Gondreau, Dad of Disabled Boy Embraced by Pope Francis”, Fox News
- Video of Pope Francis and Dominic Gondreau in a special moment (begins at 10:25)
Today’s topics: The Remarkable Encounter between Dominic Gondreau and Pope Francis
1st segment: Scot Landry said today is Red Sox Opening Day, but don’t go away because we have a very special guest, Dr. Paul Gondreau, a professor at Providence College, who is in Rome for a semester with his family and his son, Dominic, who has cerebral palsy. On Easter Sunday, Dominic received a wonderful gesture of love from Pope Francis that was captured by media from around the world. Michael said he’s friends with Paul and he said it was a beautiful moment.
Scot welcomed Paul to the show. He is a professor of theology at Providence. Paul said Providence began a Rome program two years ago and they have a theological orientation. Each semester, a member of the theology department volunteers to go and teach a course in Theology in the Eternal City. He and his wife decided it was a great opportunity for their family. In fact, they decided that six months was about the limit for how long Dominic could be away from the services he gets, including various therapies. While they found some services in Rome, it’s not the same, but they figured they could handle it for a semester. With five kids, they thought it would be great for them. They decided to take as full advantage of going to St. Peter’s as possible since they got an apartment nearby. It was only a month later that Pope Benedict made the unforeseen announcement of his resignation and they decided to capitalize on the historic days as much as they could.
They’ve been in the Square for most of the big events of the end of Benedict’s pontificate and the beginning of Pope Francis’s. They were there at his final audience and final Angelus and when he left the Vatican for the last time. He said the mood in the Square was strange, not exactly joyful and not sad. He compared it to Holy Saturday.
When Pope Francis was elected they were at home and they decided to run down to the Square for the announcement. He said the crowd rushing from the metro and the energy in the air was electrifying. He said the Italians saw Dominic in his wheelchair and ushered the family right through the crowd. Later they were present for Pope Francis’ first Sunday Angelus and his first Sunday Mass. They were able to participate as a family in all the historic events.
Beginning with Palm Sunday, they’d already got tickets for the various events long in advance. He went to the Easter Vigil the night before with his two oldest and because Rome switched over to Daylight Savings so they were tired and got out of the apartment a little late and thus arrived too late to get into the seating area. They were there an hour and 15 minutes early, but the Square was filling quickly and the moment with the Pope almost didn’t happen. They almost decided not to try to get into the seating area, but the older kids kept asking to try so he went off to check it out. In fact, they were able to get in and the Swiss Guard there is supposed to let one person accompany a disabled person into a special area. Paul decided that since he got to go to the Easter Vigil the night before, he would let his wife go to the prime location. He related how difficult it can be to receive Communion at papal Masses and so since he’d received the night before, he let his wife and Dominic go and he stayed in the back by the obelisk with the other kids.
Scot asked where the special seating area is. Paul said the area is a fairly decent view and access to the barricades to see the Pope. During the Mass, Dominic wasn’t situated with his wife along the route the Pope would take. What happened is that an usher took a notice of Dominic and was drawn to him. This happens to Dominic all the time that people are drawn to him. So the usher got it in his mind that Dominic would meet the Pope.
Dominic was rather agitated during the Mass. When a boy with cerebral palsy isn’t feeling well, or tired or too warm, it expresses itself in bodily tone and agitation. His wife, Christiana, took him out of the chair to hold him and stand with him. At the end of the Mass, he asked her to take him out of the chair and follow him to where he could see the Pope. The Pope starts touring the Square in his popemobile. Paul noted that Pope Francis is a people person, who goes around and around the Square to see and greet as many as possible. Pope Benedict was much more introverted and reserved and while he was pleasant and happy to see people, Francis is much more extroverted.
Pope Francis did a first pass by Dominic without seeing him, looking the other way. Agostino, the usher, had said when the Pope comes, lift Dominic up. When the Pope missed him, Agostino was apologetic, but Christiana was elated by being so close to the Pope. The Pope comes again and this time other ushers join in and they signaled the Popemobile to stop. The ushers and Christiana lifted Dominic up and the two of them embraced.
Paul said you almost can’t believe it in the moment. His wife was weepy and teary-eyed and overcome with emotion. Paul said when it first happened he wasn’t looking at the big monitors and didn’t know it. So his son Lucas said, “It’s Dominic”. And then “The Pope is holding Dominic!” From there, the feelings of a father seeing his son embraced by the Pope is an emotional moment. Seeing that charming smile of Dominic and putting his arm around the Pope, that he did that with the whole world watching is part of the miracle of the event. Paul said Dominic is cognitively completely normal and understands everything. He knows who the Pope is and that’s why he smiled and put his arm around him.
Then it passed and they had to wait about a half hour before they could join up with his wife. They had to wait for the pope to give the Urbi et Orbi message at noon before they could connect.
Scot said one thing that amazed him was the number of people involved in letting Dominic have that moment. He’s reminded of the men who lowered the paralytic through the roof to be healed by Jesus. Paul said if they had tried to orchestrate this, they would have botched it completely. Looking back to see all the hands involved in making this iconic moment happen, it bespeaks the beauty and mystery of the Church. He and his wife are humbled and in awe how God willed this to take on a life of its own. This world deems children like Dominic to be useless and denying his personhood, but God sometimes seems to have had enough and accomplishes a wonder that leaves no doubt that God has willed it to happen. God uses us as his instruments to share in the glory that’s proper to Him. The reality of the Church is a participation in the mystery of Christ and the Cross of Christ.
Michael asked about the impact of this moment on Dominic’s siblings. Paul said that Christ does not permit us a cross without the grace to bear with it. He also doesn’t permit it unless he draws good out of it. Just today, he got an email from a mother of one his students here who they ran into in Assisi on Tuesday of Holy Week. The student and her mother were in the town. The mother expressed how moved she was by having spent time with Dominic and getting to know him. In the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, the mom saw Paul’s daughter Julia give a gentle caress and kiss to Dominic and there was a look of contentment on his face. She had just been praying for God to repair His Church, like Francis did. The Church is repaired by small acts of love like that and by receiving love, the Church is built up by love toward each other and receiving acts of love.
Paul said he and his wife had been wondering recently what God’s vocation for Dominic is. After the meeting with the Pope, a women shouted to Christiana, “Your son is here to show us how to love.” This was a confirmation of what Christiana had been thinking that Dominic has shown his family how to love and other virtues. It’s like the Father in heaven at Jesus’ baptism saying “This is my beloved Son.” The Father raised up Dominic to show us how to love. The highest end in life is to love. How more useful to society can Dominic be than that?
Scot said Pope Francis has had so many gestures and like his namesake has been planning the restoration of the Church. Now if you ask worldwide what one thing Pope Francis has done that people would remember, it would be this act of love for Dominic and for another disabled man a couple of weeks ago.
Paul finds it deeply humbling. God chooses who He wills to accomplish His wonders. This is the folly of the Cross of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2. Paul tells us to consider how we aren’t powerful in the eyes of the world, yet chosen by God. Consider Dominic in that light.
Paul said it’s easy to look at how much Paul must give Dominic, but in this event he realizes how much more Dominic gives back to him. It’s awe-inspiring to see it. He’s still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that it happened on Easter Sunday. The Resurrection was an unforeseen, unexpected wonder, and here He is still accomplishing the unforeseen wonders on Easter Sunday. He’s humbled by thinking it’s got nothing to do with him or Dominic and it’s got everything to do with Christ.
By stressing our devotion to the poor, Pope Francis is not limiting himself to political or economic terms. He means the despised, the suffering, the alone, and the Church is constituted by acts of love to these especially.
Scot said he reflects on Pope Benedict’s resignation and how he left so quickly perhaps so his successor could be in place for Holy Week and so Pope Francis was there for this event. Secondly, that there were witnesses at this event willing to go anywhere to tell anyone this story in Paul and Christiana giving every possible interview in every venue, seeing hard-eyed journalists get teary in the moment. He asked why Paul and Christiana have taken on this mission.
Paul said last week was so crazy and the six-hour time difference left them doing interviews after midnight some nights. But if you’ve been chosen to play a role in spreading the Gospel, then you have to take your role, like Jonah. You have to play your part and embrace it. Paul said in some of the interviews he was expecting with some of the journalists that he would be baited or invited to criticize the Church or Pope Benedict. But in not one interview was there even a hint of an attempt to turn the conversation in that direction.
Paul said Dominic himself is a sign of contradiction. In a world that rejects Christ, Dominic and this moment make no sense outside of the Cross of Christ. Christ is a sign of contradiction. Certainly there’s a human element that bespeaks that despite the corruption of society, the natural law is still active in us and people are still sensitive to caring for those in need. And when a boy responds to the leader of 1 billion Catholics embraces and is embraced by a boy who smiles so joyfully, you can’t help but respond to that.
Scot said Pope Francis’ expression of love for Dominic has helped our own love for Pope Francis has grown. He noted Paul has prepared his whole life to be the right man for this moment as a witness and Dominic has prepared his whole life as well. Paul noted that it’s like a perfect storm of moments, such as this occurring on Easter Sunday when the whole world was watching Pope Francis.
Michael said he’s noticed how people have shared and commented on this moment on social media, including Facebook, especially for people who aren’t practicing their faith. Paul said he was aware and trying to be careful to preach the Gospel without sounding preachy. In this interview today, he’s let it all out. But he still marvels how even the Huffington Post reprinted his post from CatholicMoralTheology.com which unreservedly it proclaims the pro-life truth and the truth of the Gospel. It’s an opportunity to evangelize people who are usually not open to the Gospel. He’d been surprised that it took so long to get interviews with Catholic outlets, but those did come.
His favorite interview was with Megyn Kelly at Fox News who understood the moment and didn’t shy away from the moral element in all of it.
As Catholic parents, they try to teach their children to be obedient to God in all things and they try to live it by example, even as they fail sometimes. Paul recalled being in the Diocese of Portland before their marriage referendum recently and his 12-year-old son, Lucas, was there and saw how Paul was attacked and cursed at. He thought it was a testament for his son to see his dad be a cultural warrior. But this is evangelizing in a different way and gives a different perspective to his son. You play the role that God gives to you in the moment.
Scot asked about Providence’s Rome program. He said students are required to take a theology class, the New Testament in the Eternal City. They use the city of Rome as a classroom so half the class is formal lecture and half is site visits. They stand in these amazing locations and learn their faith.