Joe Ford is a sophomore at Harvard, one of the top universities in the country. Only 10% of all applicants make it into Harvard. As you will read, Joe’s odds were much tougher. This lesson will demonstrate how the virtue of perseverance prepared Joe for success and how the virtue of love inspired his family to help him achieve it.
Part I: Joe’s Perseverance.
When Joe was born on September 5, 1983, the doctors gave him a 1% chance of living. A lack of oxygen during birth caused excessive brain damage. Diagnosed with quadriplegic cerebral palsy, Joe lacks control of most of his muscles. He received his first wheelchair before he was two years old.
Joe has always tried hard to apply the talents that God gave him. Despite his physical limitations, Joe has the heart of a lion. While most kids with severe disabilities attended special-needs schools, Joe worked to earn a place at a challenging Language Arts Academy. In high school, he obtained an internship at a law firm, doing research on disability law. This gave him the desire to attend college and possibly pursue a career in law. He set his sights on Harvard, and studied hard enough to make it, scoring higher than 95% of all high school seniors on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Every day, Joe faces new challenges, but he never gives up. We all know how difficult learning can be sometimes; but imagine the incredible challenge of learning if you could not hold a pencil or type on a keyboard! This is the harsh reality for Joe, whose lack of muscle control makes such basic tasks extremely difficult. Last year, Joe spent nine hours taking a philosophy exam at Harvard that other students completed in three hours.
Sometimes we might prefer to have others do things for us, especially things we don’t really want to do ourselves. Sometimes we are convinced that a challenge before us is just too hard. When discouraged, we can think Joe and his challenges. For Joe, even the simplest task, like buttoning a shirt or tying a shoe, is very difficult. In order to function, he must practice perseverance, the habit of trying hard despite obstacles. Persevering does not mean that we always succeed, but that we always try our best, even through obstacles.
Part II: Family Love Brings Out the Best in Us
Joe’s amazing perseverance is in part the result of his own will to succeed; but it is also the fruit of his family’s generous outpouring of love. Joe’s brothers and sisters often carried him on their backs, or brought him in a wagon to play with friends. They changed the rules of games like baseball to allow Joe to participate, even allowing him to crawl to first base. Joe’s brother Michael taught him how to play chess, and now Joe is an excellent player. Another of Joe’s brothers, Liam, believes that by being included in so many of the family’s activities, Joe has developed the self-confidence to participate in regular activities like anyone else.
The Ford family provides a beautiful example of unconditional love. Joe’s family put his needs before their own because of their great love for him. Christ calls us to show this kind of love to everyone we meet, especially to those in need. This show of love does not happen automatically. any great virtue, charity does not happen just by making a decision once, but by actions that are done many times. Charity is a decision that has to be constantly renewed and put into practice. We would all like to become a great basketball player by practicing only once, but we know it doesn’t happen that way. Like greatness in sports, charity takes constant practice. We get better at it with effort.
The family is a perfect arena for practicing charity. It is the first school of demanding, unconditional love that brings out the best in us. Family life teaches us to be unselfish and respectful of each person’s dignity. True joy in a family comes from working together as a team. Pope John Paul II reminds us that “to maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others.” The more we help our family, the better we can help others in need.
Before we can help anyone in need, we must place ourselves in his or her situation. Understanding someone else’s troubles with a desire to help them is the virtue of compassion. We are inspired to be compassionate by remembering that God made us in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26). We are all united to God with a special dignity and love. God’s love for us is so great that he came to earth, in the person Jesus Christ, to share in our suffering. “He took upon himself our infirmities, he bore our sickness” (Mt 8:17; Is 53:4). Christ understands every hardship that we experience. We should think about others’ hardships as well.
At first, Joe’s family did not know how to help him. His mother held fast to the hope that he would get better. Refusing to believe what the doctors told her about Joe’s condition, she brought him to physical therapy, swimming lessons, and even horseback riding lessons so that his physical abilities could improve. Realizing that Joe likely would not be cured, his mother then shifted her focus to helping Joe live a fulfilling life with his disabilities. She worked hard to help him develop the abilities that God had given him. Once she understood his situation, she could better help him.
Our parents’ love for us lets them see greatness in us that we do not even see ourselves. Their love comes from God, who has given us all a potential for greatness through the sacrament of baptism. God sees a potential saint, a potential hero, in each of us. Christ believed in our greatness even when we were crippled by sin. He died for us to bring out the saint and hero in each one of us. We become this hero when we, like Christ, help bring out the best in others.
Joe struggles with his disability just as we all struggle with our own imperfections. Those who are physically or mentally disabled serve as a visible sign of our duties to one another. Such people are rich in humanity and deserving of all the dignity and love that we hope for. Disability is not a punishment; it is a privilege, which God allows as an opportunity for us to love one another as he loves us.
“He who endures to the end shall be saved.” Matthew 10:22
“Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews12:1
“I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” St. Paul
Parallel Holy Heroes
Blessed Antonia Mesina (1919-1935)
Antonia was born in Sardinia, the second-born of ten children. Her mother, Grazia, developed a heart condition that required her to stay in bed most of the time. Antonia left school to take care of the whole family. She was in third grade at the time! Her mother often called Antonia “the flower of my life” and claimed that Antonia “never once went against me”. An obedient and brave little girl, she cared for her brothers and sisters as if she were already an adult. She cooked, cleaned, washed clothes, changed diapers, carried water, and gathered wood. At the same time, Antonia was active in a Catholic youth group and helped many of her friends grow in their faith. She gave up many personal pleasures and sacrificed her wants for the needs of her family and friends.
BLESSED HERMAN THE CRIPPLE (1013-1054)
Herman was born with a facial deformity, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida. His parents were too poor to tke care of him, so they gave him to a Benedictine abbey nearby. Herman became a monk himself and studied hard. Despite his physical condition, Herman was a genius. He studied and wrote on astronomy, theology, math, history, poetry, Arabic, Greek, and Latin. He also built musical instruments and astronomical equipment. Eventually, Herman went blind and had to give up his academic writing. He began composing poetry and became the most famous religious poet of his day. He wrote the prayer Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen), which we often recite as part of the Rosary.
Quadriplegic- complete paralysis from the neck down
Cerebral Palsy- a malfunction of the motor centers in the brain due to damage of the tissue (usually before or during birth) that results in lack of muscular coordination such as movement and speech
Perseverance- trying hard and continuously despite obstacles
Unconditional Love– genuine concern and respect given freely to others without motive of self-interest; unconditional love is the love of God: a limitless, changeless love that embraces everyone and does not need to be earned.
Dignity- quality of being worthy of esteem or respect
Compassion- placing ourselves in another’s situation with a desire to help
1. Did you know that 1 in 5 Americans has some form of disability? 1 in 10 has a severe disability. What do you think constitutes a disability? Do you, or anyone in your family, have a disability of any kind? How many people do you know with a disability?
2. What specific actions and attitudes of Joe’s family helped him to develop confidence and trust in himself and others?
3. Pope John Paul II calls the family “the first school of social virtues.” What does this mean? How do you practice perseverance and sacrifice in your family?
4. In what ways do your parents make sacrifices for you? What sacrifices can you make for them and for the rest of your family?
5. How is God’s love for us reflected in people with disabilities?
6. Which sacraments call us to practice perseverance and unconditional love?
Personal Reflection/Journal Writing
1. Write about a time when you have not been able to accomplish something that you wanted to be able to do? What got in the way? How did the obstacle make you feel? Did you give up or did you try harder? Why? What do you think that says about your personality? If you tried harder, did you eventually succeed? What helped you keep going? Did others encourage you to try or to stop trying? How did that affect you? the example of anyone help you to keep going?
2. Write a descriptive paragraph about your day from the point of view of someone in a wheelchair. Consider what you would do differently and how you would go about doing it.
3. Write about a time when you needed help from someone in your family. It could be something small, like a homework assignment, or something significant, like a personal situation. Did you ask for help or was it offered freely? What was the outcome?
4. Write about a time when you helped someone else in great need. What did you sacrifice to help? How effective were your actions?
5. List some aspects of our society that devalue human life. Is every aspect of life sacred in our country? What are some issues threatening the dignity of life?
6. Should we treat people with disabilities differently? How should they be treated?
1. Find a charity that provides education for underprivileged or disabled students. Help support the charity in some tangible way.
2. Many babies are aborted because they are diagnosed in the womb with disabilities. This is an offense to the dignity of all life, which many people, especially Catholics, are trying to stop. Find a pro-life organization in your areas and see how you or your class can help. You might also support a local adoption agency that places unwanted children in loving families.
1. What are the corporal works of mercy? List them, and for each one give a concrete example of how you and your family and/or classmates could accomplish it.
2. Students may research a person with a physical disability who has persevered and accomplished great things. It can be someone they know or someone they read about (the link to Special Olympics has a “meet the athletes” section.) Students should then write a short biography of the person, including details of the person’s disability and how he or she has overcome difficulties.
3. Research websites about saints. Present a report on a saint who overcame a disability or helped others with disabilities.
National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry – Youth for Disabilities: Resources for Ministry http://www.nfcym.org/v3/resources/disabilities.html
Catholic World Mission— Mano Amiga program offers exceptional education for poor children in Mexico: http://www.catholicworldmission.org/
Pro-Life Activities— various pro-life resources from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/prolife/
National Disabled Students Union: http://www.disabledstudents.org/
Special Olympics: http://www.specialolympics.org/
Children with Disabilities: http://www.childrenwithdisabilities.ncjrs.org/