When I was 25, I lived for four months in Madrid as a guest of a large Spanish family of 8 children, most of whom were grown and living on their own. I was introduced to the family by a friend who briefed me about them as he drove me to their home. In the car, he mentioned that their 22-year-old son, Alvaro, had Down Syndrome. When I heard that, I must admit, it made me a little nervous. I had never spent much time with someone with Down Syndrome and didn’t know what that would be like. After parking the car in their driveway and getting my bags, we walked inside, where I met my hosts. A few minutes later Alvaro arrived home from school, and his mother told him to come over to say hello. He put down his backpack and came over to greet me with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. At that moment, I realized to my shame what a fool I had been to be worried about Alvaro. Looking back, it was a privilege to spend four months with that great family. It wasn’t always easy for them; Alvaro could be a handful at times. But he was their delight.
Alvaro came to mind when I was listening to an interview of Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, who recently retired after leading the Archdiocese of Louisville from 2007-22. Kurtz spoke about his older brother George, who, like Alvaro, had Down Syndrome. When their mother died in 1989, Kurtz received permission to have George move into the parish rectory with him. They lived together for 11 years, including after Kurtz became a bishop in 1999, until George passed away in 2002. Reflecting on his relationship with George, Kurtz said: “I don’t think anyone came close to influencing my life the way my brother George did.” George was very popular with parishioners, and his presence in the rectory, Kurtz said, had the effect of transforming it from a house into a home. Like many people with heavy responsibilities, Kurtz had a tendency to have a daily schedule packed with events and many tasks to accomplish. One morning, as George walked into the kitchen to make himself some coffee, Kurtz immediately started telling his brother about all of the things they had on that day’s “to-do” list. George just looked at him and said, “Good morning.” Realizing his bad manners, the archbishop sheepishly responded, “good morning, George,” and joined his brother for a cup of coffee. George “slowed me down and made me appreciate what it means to linger and enjoy the presence of someone.” Life with George had its challenges, but Kurtz never thought of it as a hardship. Rather, the archbishop said that his brother George helped him grow in his humanity, and gave him a greater sense that life is a mystery to be lived rather than a problem to be solved.
Toward the end of the interview, Kurtz told the story of a little girl who asked him why her little brother was born with autism. He responded, “Well… I don’t know. You and I will have a lot of questions to ask when we get to Heaven, God willing.” Then he said, “But now let me ask you a question, do you love your brother?” The little girl responded: “Yes.” Then Kurtz said: “Well, then you will never be the same. You will be better because of your brother. And that’s a partial answer to your question.” Archbishop Kurtz’s words remind us that every human life is a gift to all of us from God, and that those among us who just need a little bit more help are often the ones who help the rest of us become better.