JANESVILLE — Mary Gondreau of Janesville could hardly believe her eyes Easter Sunday.
Right there, in a photo from St. Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis was hugging her nephew Dominic Gondreau.
Moments earlier, the newly elected pontiff was making his way in the popemobile through an estimated 250,000 worshippers. At one point, the white Mercedes transporting the pope stopped, and the pope reached out to greet 8-year-old Dominic.
Pope Francis lifted the child, who has cerebral palsy, and kissed him. He then whispered something to the boy before gently placing him back in his mother’s arms.
“The smile on Dominic’s face said it all,” Mary said. “How incredibly special for that little boy to be blessed by the Holy Father. It was just so thrilling to see.”
Major television outlets in the United States, including CNN, ABC and NBC, aired the video. In addition, newspapers worldwide carried still images of the touching embrace.
“Cognitively, Dominic is entirely normal,” Mary said. “He understood what was going on. But Dominic has severe physical limitations. Our whole family is so incredibly proud of him.”
Mary and almost 20 family members were gathered in Janesville at the home of Denise Marshall, Mary’s sister. They stared in disbelief at the images of Dominic and the pope on Facebook, where they first learned of the encounter.
“We were totally amazed,” Denise said. “It was just wonderful.”
Dominic is the son of Paul Gondreau, who grew up in Janesville.
Today, Paul is a professor of theology at Providence College in Rhode Island, a Catholic university. He is teaching a class in Rome this semester and is overseas with his wife, Christiana, and their five children.
The family arrived late for the pope’s first Easter Mass. Because of Dominic’s condition, he and his mother were allowed to enter an area for people with disabilities. Paul stood in the crowd with his other children.
Dominic’s older brother Lucas was the first to notice Dominic and the pope on one of the large television screens broadcasting live.
Lucas alerted his father by shouting: “The Pope is holding Dominic!”
“Paul and Lucas were immediately brought to tears,” Mary said.
Paul described the tender moment as “an incredibly moving encounter between a modern Francis and a modern Dominic.” He referred to the Biblical meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic.
A woman at the scene said young Dominic was in St. Peter’s Square to show people how to love.
“The remark hit my wife as a gentle heaven-sent confirmation of what she has long suspected: that Dominic’s special vocation in the world is to move people to love,” Paul wrote in a guest blog on the Catholic Moral Theology website. “We human beings are made to love, and we depend upon examples to show us how to do this.”
Paul said his disabled son stands as a powerful testament to the dignity and infinite value of every human, especially those that the world deems the weakest.
“When we saw Dominic overcome his physical limitations and wrap his arm around the Pope’s neck, the world witnessed a wondrous example of how to show love and how to receive love,” Paul said. “Moments like these give the most meaning to our lives.”
The pope’s heartfelt gesture toward Dominic strengthens Mary’s affection for the pontiff.
“I love our new pope,” said Mary, a member of St. Patrick’s Congregation in Janesville. “He is so much for poor people and handicapped people. I think he is going to do good things for the Catholic Church.”
Mary is going to frame the photo of Dominic with the pope and put it where everyone can see it in her living room.
“This Easter will always be the best our family ever had because of our sweet little Dominic,” she said. “You fall in love with him the minute you see him. He steals your heart and won’t give it back.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.