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Our Lady of Sorrows Bears Witness Today

Rick and Janina Arritola with Anthony

Janina and Rick Arritola

Susan E. Wills - published on 09/15/14

Many Catholic moms are drawing strength from Mary when facing their own sorrows.

I’ve been praying the Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows of Mary ever since a friend and former colleague brought me a "souvenir" chaplet from Assisi. (Thank you once again, Msgr. JPM!) Perhaps that’s why several women whom I’ve come to know in the past decade have, in their own way, reminded me so much of Our Lady of Sorrows. Not from any outward appearance of sorrow, mind you, but from the way they accepted extraordinary hardship and lovingly persevered up to and beyond the death of their own innocent child. By their witness, they are teaching us—as the Blessed Mother has—the meaning of love and faith, and the dignity and worth of every child.

These women said “yes” to life even when they recognized that their “yes” would entail sacrifices and loss and, in some cases, the suffering and rejection of their child. Let me start by comparing the Seven Sorrows of Mary with the experiences of my friends.

1. The Prophecy of Simeon (that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart). Each mother whose story follows was given a prophecy of suffering and loss when told by their OBs and genetic counselors that their child had a fatal chromosomal disorder.

2. The Flight into Egypt. The Holy Family had to swiftly flee to Egypt—before the arrival of Herod’s soldiers, intent on killing the Christ Child—to escape what would be the Massacre of the Innocents. The mothers I describe also had to find a place of safety from doctors and family members who thought their children would be better off dead. Sometimes this meant going to two or three OBs before finding one who would support their desire to give birth and give their child medical care for as long as God wanted him or her to live.

3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple. The Blessed Mother suffered anxiety for days as she and Joseph searched for Jesus, after he remained behind them in the Temple. These mothers have also experienced anguish each time their child became ill or needed surgery—not knowing if he or she would survive. 

4. Mary Meets Jesus on the Way to Calvary. In a sense, these mothers have walked their own way of the cross since receiving the diagnosis that their child had an “abnormality incompatible with life.” Although the mothers had many opportunities to savor the joys these children brought to their families, they also experienced whatever pains their children suffered from surgeries and illnesses and they suffered from the scornful attitudes of many medical people who told them their children’s lives were unworthy of life (to borrow a phrase from doctors of the Third Reich).

5. Jesus Dies on the Cross. Without equating the suffering of the Blessed Mother at the foot of the Cross, as she watched in anguish as her innocent Son—who had already been tortured and nailed to the Cross like the most despised criminal—suffered for three hours longer before expiring, nevertheless, it is true that to any mother, the death of her innocent child is unimaginably traumatic and deeply painful.

6. Mary Receives the Body of Jesus, as have these mothers whose hearts were also broken with grief.

7. Jesus is Placed in the Tomb. This was surely a moment of emotional desolation for Mary, even as her spirit hoped for Jesus’ Resurrection. Thanks to their strong Catholic faith, these mothers felt emotionally bereft in burying their children, but knew with the eyes of faith, that their children are with Our Lord and His Blessed Mother in heaven.

Before telling you about my “old” friends who resemble Our Lady of Sorrows, let me first introduce you to one I haven’t met, but who is surely on her way to joining this group of holy women.

Tricia Roos is one outstanding coach. In her 6 years coaching the girls’ varsity volleyball team at Bishop Lynch H.S. (Dallas, TX), they have been state champions 3 times, state finalists twice and semi-finalists once, racking up an overall record of 207 wins to 56 losses.

This season she faces the biggest challenge of her career, on or off the court. Her second child, Annebelle, due January 13, 2015, has been diagnosed with trisomy 18 (also known as Edwards syndrome)–a chromosomal disorder occurring in about 1 in 2,500 pregnancies. It is the second most common chromosomal disorder in the United States, after Down syndrome.

Medical complications of trisomy 18 are so severe that most babies die before or soon after birth. Fewer than 1 in 10 children survive to celebrate their first birthday, but some even reach their 20s or 30s.

Mrs. Roos’s doctors recommended abortion, as most do. But with her husband’s full support, she decided to “fight for my baby’s life and get through a hard situation.” She told a reporter that she hopes she “will be lucky enough to give birth to her” because she very much wants to be able to meet Annebelle. Big brother Cameron (age 3) has long wanted a baby sister, but understands now that his sister “is going to heaven.”

Rather than keeping her baby’s medical condition a secret, she chose to let people know and that has resulted in at least two wonderful outcomes—for her family and for her athletes: “I feel [that] if we had hidden it … or not had as many people praying for us or helping us, then we would have felt very lost and alone.” And, like a great coach and teacher, she has turned her personal sorrow into a lesson for her athletes: “I’m teaching these kids to fight and never give up. Why would I choose the easy road or to give up on something when my life is being challenged?”

Mary Kellett knows a lot about not giving up. She is the mother of 11 children, including Peter, her youngest. At 19 weeks’ gestation, a routine screening showed that Peter had some of the markers for trisomy 18, but they chose not to have the more invasive test to confirm the diagnosis because they had no intention of aborting him. Mary was told that no babies with trisomy 18 survived beyond two weeks and that most people aborted these babies.

After his birth by emergency C-section at 34 weeks, he was given excellent care until the second day of his life, when his trisomy 18 was confirmed. Doctors then recommended that no further care be given, “Just wrap him up in a blanket, and let him die,” they were told. She was warned that he’d lead a life of terrible pain and suffering, and would never know or respond to his family.

They took Peter home where he thrived for 6 ½ years, but each time he needed hospital care, they had to fight hospital personnel who wanted to put a “do not resuscitate” order on his chart. When Peter was a happy one-year-old, Mary was inspired to found Prenatal Partners for Life, which allows parents of children with newly-diagnosed special needs to receive support, advice and hope from experienced parents of children with the same condition. In an article she wrote for the U.S. Bishops’ Respect Life Program in 2007 (before Peter’s death), Mary explained:

“We are grateful for Peter, whom we call our “little teacher.” Even though he may never speak a word, he has taught us many important lessons about love, sacrifice, compassion, patience, hope and faith. He has transformed the way we look at life and has broadened our view on the deeper meaning of the sacredness of all human life made in the image of God. Peter is teaching us what Jesus taught, and he is a tremendous source of grace. He is a sweet, happy little boy who knows and loves his family. In many ways he is my easiest child out of the eleven.”

Karen Garver Santorum, wife of former Senator and 2012 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, earned fame in her own right for her poignant and uplifting book, Letters to Gabriel. Their seventh child, Gabriel, underwent surgery in utero to correct a potentially fatal malformation, but a subsequent infection caused premature labor and he survived for only two hours after his birth. Their youngest child, Isabella (“Bella”) Maria Santorum—like Annebelle Roos and Peter Kellett—has trisomy 18. As with the other parents, doctors told the Santorums that babies with trisomy 18 usually live only a few hours or days. She “won’t be able to do much,” they were told. “She’ll never be normal” and they should just “let her go.” Bella garnered a lot of attention from the press in early 2012 when her dad left the campaign trail to be with Karen and Bella when she needed to be hospitalized for a few days. She is now five and the light of their lives. Their very public witness to the dignity and value of children with special needs has surely given hope to other parents and allowed other children to be cherished, rather than aborted.

Janina and Rick Arritola learned mid-pregnancy that their 4th son, Anthony Emmanuel, had trisomy 13 (Patau’s syndrome), the third most common chromosomal abnormality and the one that poses the most life-threatening medical complications. In a sense, as they planned for Anthony’s birth, they also had to prepare for the certain knowledge of his death—determined, however, as the days passed that he would be cherished for as long as he was with them.

Anthony lived for almost a year after his birth. During his life he was hospitalized numerous times and, each time, Janina had to fight with doctors and nurses to obtain the same level of care for Anthony that they’d unquestioningly give to a child who did not have special needs. His brief time on earth had a profoundly positive impact on the family, their friends, fellow parishioners and Atlanta community.

Even during Anthony’s life, Janina began to blog about the joys and struggles of loving and caring for a child with trisomy 13. And since his death, Janina and Rick have been active in counseling others faced with an adverse prenatal diagnosis (APD). She has continued to write about Anthony’s life and contributions to those who knew him and to speak nationally about the great gift that children with special needs are to the world. Janina and Rick founded Emmanuel’s Foundation and have made themselves available 24/7 to speak to parents in need of counsel and support after an APD.    
I want to quote at length from Rick’s eulogy at Anthony’s funeral Mass because it captures so much of what Janina has written in her blog posts and articles over the years:

“Big brother Lorenzo, how much you’ve grown my son. It has been truly beautiful to have witnessed your spiritual growth, and how much you love Anthony.

“James Christian, your compassion and love that you have shared towards your little brother are an example for all to marvel.

“Tray, you are Anthony’s oldest brother, and have demonstrated incredible courage, leadership, and unshakable faith. Your humble protection was meek yet noticeable.

“We love you guys with all our hearts.

“Helen Keller once said, ‘Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.’

“We have so many treasured memories of you Anthony:

“* Your rodeo style pulling out of your NG tube to sway around like a lasso.
* The many smiles you graced us with…The silly one & only rolling giggle you shared with us when mom tickled you during a doctor’s visit. I pray we never forget that beautiful sound and the memory of your puffy smiling cheeks.
* Your beautiful long eyelashes that were the envy of every woman.
* The warm relaxing showers we took together and your calming sigh.
* Playing toesies with your stinky feet.
* Singing songs out of tune while you slept.
* And lastly, whispering ‘I Love You’ in your ear every night as you lay in your crib asleep. Today we whisper to you again, We Love You, Anthony.

“Anthony Emmanuel your courage and strength inspired many, and made me a better man. I will never forget how you called me Da. We will forever love you, and I can’t wait until we meet again.

“And finally, to you my beautiful bride whose arms ache for our beautiful little angel, you have sustained us through all of this unselfishly and with dignity and humility in imitation of our Blessed Mother. I know well that your heart is aching and I love you.”

Rest in peace Peter, Gabriel and Anthony! May you be graced with long and joyful lives, Bella and Annebelle!

Our Lady of Sorrows, bless their parents and give them continued strength to love until the last breath and forever after!

Susan E. Willsis Spirituality Editor of Aleteia’s English edition. 

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