Suffering Souls

There are many strong arguments, pro and con, about the existence of God. But one of the most powerful challenges to the idea of a good and loving God on the Biblical model (the bloodthirsty and capricious pagan gods are something else again) is the suffering of innocents. A contemporary British atheist has remarked that if he were asked why God does not exist, he would simply say, “Bone cancer in children.”

Austin Ruse, one of TCT’s founders and formerly a regular columnist here, takes on this challenge directly in his concise but consequential new book The Littlest Suffering Souls: Children Whose Short Lives Point Us to Christ. Christianity, he argues, alone among religions and philosophies finds meaning in suffering as such. Stoicism and most other faiths simply take suffering as a fact of nature and offer techniques about how to endure it.

But this book is not an abstract argument. Ruse treats in detail some concrete cases: Margaret Leo and Brendan Kelly (both of greater Washington D.C.), and “Audrey” (last name withheld by parental request), a young girl who lived and died near Paris.

Austin is a friend and longtime collaborator (these stories began as TCT columns and produced hundreds of reactions from all over the world). But I can say, objectively, that the result is something nearly miraculous. Who knew that saintly, suffering children could be living evidence to those who knew or even just heard about them that a loving God exists?

Austin Ruse

It’s nearly impossible to write well about the spiritual dimensions of children going through medical tortures. What usually happens is pious in the bad sense and therefore falsely sentimental. The great and unflappable Flannery O’Connor quailed, for that very reason, when the Hawthorne Dominicans asked her to write an introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann, an account of another young sufferer in the 1960s.

Cardinal Burke wrote the foreword to this volume and commends it, quoting St. John Paul II, about how, uniquely in Christianity, our sufferings – even those of the littlest souls – participate in the redemptive suffering of Jesus.

Ruse captures this in the telling of these stories better than any writer I know: preserving proper sentiments (not sentimentality) but also conveying the occasional humor and ultimate inspiration of these little lives with nary a false word. (And while we’re at it, kudos to TAN Books for having produced a simply beautiful volume.)

The truth is that even parents and family can come to hate God during such trials – and that their suffering children often help them.

Two of the children featured have important fathers. Leonard Leo is executive vice-president of the Federalist Society, a lawyers’ group that advised President Trump on his recent Supreme Court appointee. Frank Kelly heads global government affairs for Deutsche Bank. Both were at the D.C. Catholic Information Center this week when the book was presented, highly accomplished men but – you could see – all but tongue-tied when asked to speak about their children. Hence, the additional value of this book.

Brendan Kelly was born with Down syndrome and at two was diagnosed with leukemia. He died at only sixteen after a series of medical dramas, punctuated by much love and remarkable (including inexplicable, miraculous) events that touched an unbelievably wide swath of people – not least a long episode with St. John Paul II at Castle Gandolfo that will make you laugh out loud. Two thousand people were at his funeral.

Margaret Leo had such a severe form of spina bifida that it is usually fatal despite medical advances. When amniocentesis indicates that condition, most children these days are aborted because their “quality of life” will be so low. Margaret spent her whole life in a wheelchair because of twists in her spine so powerful that when titanium rods were inserted to keep her back straight, the rods bent. Yet that tiny child never complained or seemed to feel fear, had a simple faith, and a gift for friendship, despite the way that many people are put off by handicapped people in wheelchairs. She died, almost unexpectedly, but miraculous events followed her death.

Audrey died at seven after years of battling leukemia. Her French family was nominally Catholic and didn’t instruct her in the Faith, but by age three she was instructing them. Spotting a crucifix in a confessional she said, “Just looking at Him, you love Him.” She took up mortification instinctively, somehow, giving up sweets; making acts of penance without anyone telling her what it meant; insisted on grace before meals (not a family practice); seemed to know Gospel passages without having been taught them; lived perpetually, as many came to feel, in the presence of God.

These are only the bare bones of the stories of three saintly children who have many things to teach us that proceed along expected lines. But the fact that they were from prominent families also has significance, Ruse explains. As he mentions their various connections, he says, “I am aware that I am doing what is commonly referred to as ‘name-dropping’; this is deliberate, but hopefully to be excused, as it is done to emphasize a particular aspect of these ‘little suffering souls.’. . .[These] were not peasant children tending their flocks. They were born into families of influence, families that inhabited a particular milieu: the power center of Washington, D.C. In short, they too were born into a kind of spiritual desert, an environment in which the things of the world can so easily take precedence over the things of God, and they had – and still have – lessons to teach the inhabitants of that particular desert.”

We’ve recently had debates over the Benedict Option, the Dominican Option, and many more such “options” in our troubled Church and state. There’s something to be said for them all, of course. But to my mind, and not only in Washington, the suffering souls option has them all beat.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.