The strongest argument atheists possess is the problem of pain. It is almost a cliché. How could a loving God allow pain, not just toothache pain but wrenching almost unending pain, pain unto death. He allowed it for His own Son.
Such severe pain in anyone is a mystery, even more mysterious when visited upon children. I suspect it is something that has driven many away from the arms of faith. Is it made less mysterious when visited upon young children who also have a heightened sense of God? Certainly not to the atheist. Not even to a Mormon, or to a Jew who do not understand suffering in the way Catholics do.
We believe that suffering, properly understood, draws us closer to God, helps to alleviate the suffering of Christ, and draws others to salvation. What a monstrous belief to those who do not understand.
We live in an age of great saints. John Paul the Great. Josemaria Escrivá. Mother Theresa. Padre Pio. Gianna Molla. Brendan Kelly. Margaret Leo. Audrey Stevenson.
You do not know those last three? They are the littlest suffering saints. There are many more all across the globe, little ones with a heightened sense of God, even as tots, who suffered terribly with maladies and disease but who offered their suffering for others, for Christ, and who died young.
Audrey Stevenson was born in 1983 to a nominally Catholic family, a family that did not even say grace at meals. When she was three, her family visited the home of Theresa of Lisieux and then to the convent where the Little Flower lived and died, and Audrey exclaimed: “I want to enter Carmel.”
Not long after the family moved into a new apartment. Audrey drew a crude yellow crucifix and put it on the wall. She had put identical crucifixes in each room of the house where they remained for a good long time.
One day Audrey’s mother Liliane discovered Audrey was walking with a limp. Audrey had put pencils in her shoes so she “could resist,” a child’s quite sophisticated understanding of mortification, something that no one in the house had taught her.
Audrey went to the park with her grandfather, down boulevards, across bridges and big intersections, in a busy part of Paris where Haussmann made all the beautiful buildings look the same. She became lost. Alarmed, her grandfather called home and found that Audrey was there. She said she followed Jesus home.
All of this happened to a little girl of three in a family that was not especially devout.
As her father, Jerome, looks on, Audrey Stevenson meets John Paul the Great
Audrey introduced grace before meals into her family. Once at their summerhouse in Brittany, Audrey insisted upon saying grace. Her American uncle Alexander Cummings chided her. “But Audrey, if we have to give thanks to God every time we eat, then we should be giving thanks all the time, for everything.” Audrey said, “Yes, that’s right.”
The stories of Audrey’s piety go on and on. She lived a deep interior and exterior faith that one rarely sees in this life. Her mother said, “Audrey bewilders us. She is beyond us.” She knew the catechism without anyone teaching it to her. Their priest said, do not do anything, follow her. And so the family did.
At five Audrey petitioned the Church to be allowed to take communion. The typical child in France was allowed the Eucharist at nine or then. She was quizzed deeply – by her priest and then another and then another. They determined that this little girl was ready, and so the family decamped to Lourdes, where she received the Eucharist for the first time.
You notice in the story of her life is that she not only lived close to Christ but she brought him to others, first to her family and then to an ever widening circle.
The avenue that brought Audrey’s faith to others far outside the family was sickness. Her parents had a foreboding that something would happen to test Audrey and them. At six, she came down with pneumonia and had to spend a lot of time alone while her mother and father tended to the other children. She spent the time in prayer and singing. And her mother began to wonder if sickness would be part of Audrey’s mission.
Death-dealing illness came when she was seven. Leukemia. Many months of treatment including radiation, chemotherapy, spinal taps, and bone marrow transplants. And thus began Audrey’s teaching mission, a mission that reached across France and into other countries.
Among family and friends, a Tuesday Rosary began for her recovery. It started small and then grew. Miracles happened there. Little girls taught their fathers to say the Rosary. Whole families came back to the faith. An Audrey prayer card went all over France.
Audrey’s suffering in the hospital was intense. Chemotherapy rendered her without saliva, her eyelids stuck to her eyes, and all of her bones hurt. She said over and over, “I am on the cross. I am on the cross.” During painful spinal taps she would repeat, “For Uncle Mick, for Papa, for vocations.” During one painful treatment doctors heard her singing songs to Mary.
After a failed bone-marrow transplant, Audrey had three weeks to live. Her family took her to Lourdes; they took her to meet the pope, with whom she had an intense private talk. In the end, visitors from all over France knocked on their door asking Audrey to pray for their intentions, which she did in great pain by name one after another.
Audrey died. Her father, who is my daughter Gianna-Marie’s godfather, tells how a priest visited from Mexico. The priest said, “I owe my vocation to a little French girl who prayed for vocations and died of Leukemia.” Jerome said, “You are sitting in her bedroom.”
The cause for Audrey’s canonization was begun in Paris a few years ago. Audrey Stevenson, pray for us.