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Learning from the sick, and from the death of a child

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | May 17, 2013

This past Tuesday we buried Sheila Catherine Beirne, a sweet 6-year-old girl who succumbed to Leigh’s Disease. The Beirnes are a big happy Catholic family, with a deep faith and a wide circle of friends. The church was packed for the funeral, with brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors who wanted to support that family in their grief and join them in their prayer.

It was a sad occasion, certainly. But I think everyone who attended the funeral would agree that there was another feeling in the air: a feeling of gratitude for Sheila’s brief life. Unable to thrive in this world because of her medical condition, this little girl had nevertheless touched an extraordinary number of people. Hundreds of people were praying for her during her last days-- praying hard! Now the roles were reversed, and we could all begin asking Sheila for favors.

I thought of Sheila as I read my friend Joan Frawley Desmond’s account of the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes by the Order of Malta. The Beirnes had visited Lourdes earlier this year, at Holy Week. There was to be no physical cure for Sheila. (Please say a prayer for her older brother Thomas, who has the same condition.) But I don’t know anyone who has traveled to Lourdes without experiencing some sort of miracle, and I think the community’s response to Sheila’s illness and death might qualify.

The Knights and Dames of Malta act as servants for the sick people, the malades, they bring to Lourdes. There too the ordinary roles are reversed: the wealthy and powerful serve the needy and helpless. And I suspect that as they go about their menial duties, the members of the Order of Malta have the same sort of feeling of gratitude that circulated through our parish church at Sheila’s funeral. I know that many Knights and Dames look forward anxiously to the annual pilgrimage, and say that they benefit from the experience, even more than their malades.

When we care for the sick and the needy, we think we are doing something for them, and no doubt that’s true. But they are doing something very important for us: giving us a chance to experience love.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 19, 2013 11:56 PM ET USA

    Even our imperfect sorrow seems great, even unbearable…. So one can only speculate on the “gift” to us of “the two Hearts” and associated prayers… This indeed is what makes devotion to Jesus and Mary so potent…, and practical… As crushing as grief can be it is only a taste of what they experienced… One ponders...; Do they enter into our sorrow or do we enter into theirs? Either way they are there for us…