After seizing power in Germany, the Nazis soon began to kill children who had physical or mental disabilities, deciding that anyone who was not “perfect,” as they defined it, was not worthy of life. Officials would take these children from their homes on the pretext they needed a medical examination; the children were then systematically murdered either through lethal gas or injection and the parents would receive a letter stating their daughter or son had died in the hospital because of some fictitious medical condition.

Pope Benedict’s young cousin suffered this terrible fate. As people began to discover the horrible truth, such an outcry arose throughout Germany that the Nazis actually discontinued the killing of disabled children.Pope John Paul II celebrated his final international World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. The Polish-born pontiff, then age 82, described himself as “old,” but looked and sounded better than he had in months, demonstrating once again his special chemistry with young people. (CNS file photo)

Why am I talking about this? Last August, I was blessed to attend the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus where I was inspired by the remarkable works of charity and service performed by Knights throughout the world.

During the homily at a Mass, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston stated that 90 percent of unborn children in the United States diagnosed or even misdiagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. Tears came to my eyes as I pondered such a disturbing statistic. Could that number really be so high? After checking it out on the Internet, I discovered it is probably even higher – more like 92 to 94 percent of these children are killed in the womb.

Do we really want to live in a society that destroys human life determined to be “imperfect” in its fragile beginning stage? Just because someone is missing a chromosome, does that mean the right to life is forfeited?

I’ve read comments from Planned Parenthood leaders exulting in the fact that fewer children are born with defects or disabilities. This is a fact in large part not only because of prenatal medical advances, but because we are simply killing such children in the womb. Are we morally any better than Nazi Germany in this regard or just more subtle and sophisticated?

All of us know someone who has a physical or mental limitation – actually, don’t we all have some limitations?

I think of a boy in my high school class who had Down syndrome, the children with severe disabilities we seminarians would visit at Southern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled, my nephew Paul who has cerebral palsy, a young man I prepared for first Communion who had been told he could never receive the sacrament because he would never be able to understand the Eucharist (as if any of us can fully grasp the Mystery) or a crippled girl I would visit in the Dominican Republic.

Each of them has added love, beauty, joy and goodness to the world. Their ability to live in the present moment, love unconditionally, live without human pretense and just be themselves reminds me of the lilies of the field or the birds in the sky whose gentle reliance on Divine Providence Jesus praised so poetically. I would be so much less as a person if I had never known or been loved by such beautiful children of God.

Parents of children with special needs live through many challenges, caring for a beloved son or daughter who may require constant attention, patience and nurture. The emotional, psychological and even spiritual exhaustion of such radical self-giving can take an extreme toll.

We can all certainly understand the difficult emotions that surround the discovery that a beloved child has special needs; such empathy should move us to help these families in any way we can. Friendship, offering respite time for caregivers, and cooking meals are simple ways to support parents in such a demanding situation. Is there such a family in your neighborhood or parish? How can we reach out to them?

I have spoken with so many parents who have a special needs child who have movingly testified to the love, joy and goodness that such a child has brought into their marriage and family. Through the good and challenging times, such children teach us what really matters in life – love, relationship, joy, being yourself, giving and believing.

Many of our parishes offer religious education, events and support for special needs children and their families. May such efforts increase in quantity and quality.

The Catholic Church will always contribute to building a civilization of love where every human being from conception to natural death will know dignity, respect, love and acceptance. The greatest litmus test of the moral quality of any given society is its treatment of the most vulnerable. The United States will only achieve true greatness when the unborn, the poor, the sick, those with special needs and the elderly are universally seen as gifts, not burdens; as children of God, not disposable things; as the hidden Christ in search of our love, not a drain on our resources. We struggle, sacrifice, love and dream for a greater realization of this vision of the Kingdom of God.

I will never forget the opening celebration of World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. In an advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease, an elderly and frail Pope John Paul was on stage in a wheelchair, surrounded by special needs children, many of whom were in wheelchairs themselves. As a choir sang “On That Holy Mountain,” the children joyfully performed a rhythmic dance around the pope. I looked around at the people who surrounded me in that vast crowd; a dry eye was not to be seen, including my own. The Nazis would have said none of those people on the stage deserved to live. God and we think differently!