Since he was old enough to articulate it, Ryan has wanted to be a priest. He has played Mass in the most reverent way possible since he was six years old. For a long time he had, permanently, set up an altar on my coffee table using pieces from his sister’s tea set, a stack of white handkerchiefs from his father’s drawer and my crocheted table runner. He would express his great displeasure whenever I walked past my own coffee table and did not genuflect.
I had the holiest coffee table in town.
When he got a little older, I purchased the lovely Mass Kit from Our Father’s House and I taught him the proper names of all of the pieces. He used his First Communion robe as an alb and I had one happy kid. Other boys dream of becoming a short stop for the New York Yankees. My autistic son dreamed of conferring sacraments. He wanted to assist at Mass, even though he was too young to serve. He wanted to sing hymns all day and his favorite outdoor activity was to walk around the perimeter of our large yard praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
I must confess, I thought it was weird. However, when you live with autism, weird is what you do.
I would listen to moms on the soccer field or in dance class waiting rooms complain about struggling with their sons about video games or Pokémon cards. I would wonder what this was like. In my house I was often heard to say, “Please stop praying and go outside and run around like other boys”. I would imagine that someday someone would be writing Ryan’s saint story and there would be this sad little passage:
“Ryan persevered in spite of his mother’s exhortations to stop praying. She interfered with his prayer life constantly and in spite of it he managed to grow close to God and perform many miracles. Pray for his mother as she is probably burning in Purgatory.”
In the past few years, Ryan’s faith journey has been refined a bit. The Mass kit is not in use as much. He has joined the choir, choosing to serve at Mass through his musical gift rather than on the altar. He prays the Chaplet most days and loves to read and study his Magnificat. His favorite Christmas gift was his own leather bound Sunday Missal. I have no idea how much of what he reads he understands but he is faithful to it all and that’s about all I could ask for at this point. He is a frequent guest on the line to confession and makes his penance with reverence. Something must be getting through.
We have been blessed by a close relationship with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an extraordinary group of men and women religious founded by Fr. Benedict Groeschel. These friars possess nothing materially but their love of Christ shines from them visibly. Ryan’s happiest moments have been spent at their friaries, having dinner with the brothers and playing guitar for their holy hour. He wants to be a friar in the worst way.
Can it be? Could he possibly take vows someday and live a religious life? I honestly have no idea. It is inconceivable to me, at this point, that he will possess the ability to attend a seminary but to take vows and live as a friar? Why not? His only ambitions are to pray, attend Mass, play the guitar at Mass and prayer group and he is perfectly willing and able to do simple works and jobs. Sounds pretty Franciscan to me.
I once told a priest of my joy about Ryan’s obvious love of God and my concern that his life’s ambition would not come to pass due to his disability. He advised me to get St. John Vianney on it. Not only is this great saint patron of parish priests, he was refused entrance to the seminary three times due to poor academics. So I have been asking this holy saint to intercede on Ryan’s behalf, to help him achieve his goal of living a life dedicated to serving God in a religious order.
I feel, deep in my heart, that while Ryan is certainly not in any way a saint — he is totally normal in the driving his sisters crazy department and he is also far advanced in the not listening department — there is something “other-worldly” about him. His great love of our Catholic faith delights me, but had little to do with me. It grew out of him somehow and, to be honest, his faith has deepened mine, rather than the other way around.
So for now I try my best to create an atmosphere in the home that encourages a religious vocation, for any of my children. I treat priests and sisters like the heroes they are and speak highly of their calling. I encourage my daughters to spend time at the Franciscan convent. Katie and Erin have an ongoing game of charades with Sisters Elizabeth and Francesca and their delight in this humble pasttime blows my high tech kids away. The joy that my family experiences in spending time with people in different religious vocations will hopefully bring a vocation or two to our family. And if I am lucky enough to raise a saint, hopefully he’ll pray me out of Purgatory. I’ll need all the help I can get.