Several years ago, while doing a faith-based survey on the Washington Mall with our youth program, I noticed a young couple with an autistic child sitting nearby. Since I have a niece with Down’s syndrome and a nephew with autism, I am generally attracted to these very special families, so I approached them to offer a word of encouragement.

After a few minutes of small talk, the husband looked at me and began to talk about how difficult their circumstances were. He said, “This can truly break down a marriage, with all of the added stresses and tensions our circumstances have created … But we have a strong faith, so we will be fine.”

The wife nodded in agreement — and I could see, beyond her tired eyes, a sparkle of faith as well.

“I know the divorce statistics of parents with handicapped children are even more dire than standard divorce rates.”

During my time in D.C., I was privileged to meet and know several families with special needs children, but one in particular stood out. I asked Anne Davis, a mom in the D.C. area, to give a brief testimony of her faith journey, which has caused her to fundamentally rethink what her life is all about.

She shared these comments with me:

“No matter how difficult a path God has set for me, I have never felt it to be less than beautiful and merciful … I am blessed with a severely and multiply handicapped child. Our journey is one that no parent would choose, but one that forces me to focus on what is truly important in life, removing temptations for worldly distractions.”

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“Through the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches us that God’s perspective and the world’s perspective are at odds,” she continued. “While many would say my son has special needs, I would counter that I am the one with special needs. Before Braeden, my identity was focused on my image, my career, or on social activities. God gave me many wonderful talents and gifts, but one by one removed them to help me focus on what is truly important. How can I not say that spiritually, I am the one with special needs — a very slow learner? Braeden is truly a gift, as he almost always brings out the best in people and also helped me to focus on what God needs of me.”

The insightful mom also said, “I learned intensely that God will always provide more than enough grace and support to help us through the most difficult situations in so many ways, but especially through the gift of a wonderful and committed husband — and I know the divorce statistics of parents with handicapped children are even more dire than standard divorce rates. I have learned to know and trust infinitely in God our Father, Christ His Son, the Holy Spirit, and also in Mary — our mother and my guardian angel. I have discovered many promises of the rosary, and the beautiful novena to Our Lady Undoer of Knots,  and in my most difficult moments the simple prayer of Mother Theresa of Calcutta: ‘Mary, Mother of God, please be a mother to me now.'”

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I asked my sister-in-law, Ann Sliney, to share her testimony as well:

“I would say that shortly after Lia’s birth, God showed me that Lia was not a ‘fluke,’ but God’s perfect creation, Down syndrome and all,” said my sister-in-law. “And I knew beyond any doubt that He had a plan for her in this life. To most people, she would look like someone who would never be successful or make a positive contribution to society. But God allowed me to see through His eyes that Lia was blessed with many gifts and talents. She would use those gifts to teach others about the ‘fruits of the Spirit’; unconditional love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. She demonstrates these virtues, these spiritual gifts effortlessly to everyone she comes in contact with and they, too, see Lia through God’s eyes.”

She continued, “This journey has not been easy, and Tom and I knew we needed God to lead and guide us through parenting a special needs child. With Lia our first of five children, we made our faith the most important part of our lives and shared our love of God with our children as soon as they were born.”

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“Praying over them as babies, singing songs about Jesus, reading stories to them from the Children’s Bible every night before bed — we did all of this. Through Lia, God showed us that it was our role as parents to teach our children about God, our creator, so they could come to know Him and grow in His love, thereby leading and guiding them to be the person He intended them to be.”

She concluded with these words: “Our oldest child, Lia, is now 30 — going on 15. Our youngest child, Nick, is 19, going on 15. He has high-functioning autism and we rejoice in all of his achievements. God has a plan for him also. We are taking one day at a time and allowing God to lead and guide him in His time — not ours.”

Suffering, in all its various shapes and forms, can be a tremendous gift — yet perhaps a hidden, painful and mysterious gift as well. Nothing happens to us without it first going past God’s desk; he needs to give his personal approval. Trust that God is always looking for our temporal and eternal good, he is proactively and constantly preparing us for eternal happiness, and there is no better path to reach this goal, other than the one he chose for himself, the cross.

Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.