Pope Francis’ embrace of Dominic Gondreau, a child with cerebral palsy, recently went viral, touching the hearts of individuals across the globe. A photo of the compassionate act quickly piqued the interest of Catholics and non-Catholics, alike, who felt intense emotion upon seeing Francis lovingly hug the child.
This week, TheBlaze interviewed the boy’s father, Dr. Paul Gondreau, about the experience — one that has landed both him and his family members some major media coverage since the Easter Sunday mass after which the embrace took place.
Dr. Gondreau, a professor of theology at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, said that he is teaching for the semester in Rome — and he brought his wife and family along with him to participate in the six-month experience.
Since the family has an apartment not far from St. Peter’s Square, they have taken advantage of a variety of events at the Vatican, including Pope Benedict’s final appearances and Pope Francis’ first Easter mass. But little did they know that in attending the latter event, they would end up in newspapers and media outlets across the globe. Nor could they have guessed that their eight-year-old son, Dominic, would end up in the arms of Pope Francis.
TheBlaze connected with Dr. Gondreau to speak further about the viral photograph and the story behind the experience. Here are his responses:
What motivated you, your wife and your five children to attend mass at St. Peter’s Square (and what were you doing in Italy)?
We decided to come as a family to take advantage of being in Rome. What Catholic family wouldn’t relish the opportunity of being in Rome together for 6 months? And as it turned out, we found an apartment that makes it rather quick and easy to make it to St. Peter’s. So we decided we’d take advantage of as many grand papal moments as possible — and that was before Pope Benedict announced his resignation!
As for Easter Sunday, the moment almost didn’t happen, as we were a little late getting to the Square (two of my kids had joined me for the Easter Vigil the night before, and so it was a late night for us), and the seating area was already full, and the Square was getting rather full. But we plodded ahead anyway, and at the entrance to the seating area, the Swiss Guard indicated that one person could accompany my disabled son to the seating area for the disabled. We decided it was my wife Christiana’s turn to sit up front with Dominic. So I stayed back near the obelisk with our four other children.
What did you feel as Pope Francis hugged Dominic?
At first I was unaware Pope Francis was holding my son (there’s lots of energy and movement when the pope is touring the Square, so one isn’t always looking at the big screens giving live feed of the event). Suddenly, my 12-year old son, Lucas, said, “It’s Dominic!” Thinking he was seeing Dominic with my wife moving through the crowd looking for us, I started to look for her. Then Lucas said, “The Pope is holding Dominic!” That’s when I looked up at the jumbtron and beheld the grand moment. Lucas and I immediately started to cry.
What did I feel? What any father feels when his son is embraced in a fatherly embrace by the Holy Father. Especially my young disabled son. What a blessing! What an affirmation! It was like a gentle kiss from God, saying, paraphrasing what God the Father said at Jesus’ baptism, “Behold, my beloved son, Dominic, whom I love and have blessed much.”
Why do you think there’s been so much media attention given to the image – and why do you think it went viral?
Why has this image moved the entire world? For me, it confirms that, deep down, there really is a sense of humanity underneath most of us. And when we see a religious symbol like the Pope offer a tender embrace to a young disabled boy picked out of a crowd of a quarter million, whose heart isn’t moved? It shows that sin has not so corrupted the human heart that our intuitive sense, imprinted by the natural law, that we are morally bound to care for the needy is not completely erased.
There is a human connection in this embrace that every human being who feels the need to love and be loved — which is everyone — can relate to and by moved by. And it’s interesting how this event has cut completely across ideological and political boundaries. I’ve received numerous emails from people all across the ideological spectrum who were touched and moved by this encounter. It’s such a grand and unifying moment. And one of the marvels that I’ve been struck by in our countless interviews with secular mainstream media is that not once have we been baited to criticize the Church or otherwise throw mud on the Church. Everyone has been on their best behavior, proving that this is a truly human moment.
Did Pope Francis say anything to Dominic or your family? If so, what did he say?
Dominic says Pope Francis whispered in his ear, but he doesn’t say what it is! I’ve been joking that it’s like the third secret of Fatima!
Is there anything you’d want people to know about the experience aside from what’s been reported thus far?
It is truly awe-inspiring, not to mention humbling, to see how God has willed to use Dominic (and the Pope) to touch the entire world. It’s as if, in this crazy world where personhood is denied of the unborn and of those deemed “useless” to society, God says “enough already!” and decides to take matters in His own hands, and by one simple tender moment moves even the hardest of hearts and obliterates society’s disregard for “the least of these.”
It’s just so awesome to see the Holy Spirit take over like this, and that He chose to use Dominic to do it is practically beyond belief. But it shouldn’t surprise us, since from the very beginning of salvation history God has always willed to use the weak and marginalized to move and shame the powerful and the wise. Why should he not also do it today, particularly on Easter Sunday? (And I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that this marvelous encounter occurred on Easter, as if God’s raising up Dominic confirms that he and all the disabled shall one day be whole and strong and healthy, and that the glorification of their bodies in the final resurrection will be particularly wondrous.)
My wife and I are so humbled by the fact that on Easter Sunday, 2013, God’s providential will deigned to have the whole world be touched by Dominic, just as we as a family and those who know him have been touched by him. He is such a blessing to us — how contrary to the way society looks upon people with functional disabilities — and God wished to amply this to the very ends of the earth — literally!
And how prophetic that a woman in the Square said to my wife just after the moment, “You know, your son is here to show others how to love.” It’s as if the Holy Spirit inspired this woman to speak these very words. The purpose in life is to be virtuous and to love. And in the “school of humanity,” the disabled give us the most crucial instruction possible: they teach us to be virtuous (oh! how my son has taught me to be patient, to choose one virtue) and they teach us to love. THIS is what they give to society. Is there anything more important?
With so much negative news and happenings, this truly is a touching story.
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