The doctor told the parents “You’d better call a priest.” Looking back now I suppose it strikes me as odd because it was a Jewish hospital deep in the heart of a place called Brooklyn. The year was 2011. I didn’t know the young parents, but I was called through a friend. I drove to Brooklyn. The baby was only a few days old and the doctors told the brave young couple that he most likely would not live much longer as he suffered from very severe brain damage. Entering the neo-natal intensive care unit, I met the father who was FDNY. I told him I should baptize the little infant right then and there. Priests do that often in hospitals; we call it “In periculo mortis,” which is Latin for “in danger of death.” Nurses of a certain age were once trained always to take matters into their own hands and to baptize any Catholic baby that was in danger of death when a priest could not get there in time. I don’t know if nurses today are trained to do that—they should be—or perhaps today they might get sued.
I leaned into the little crib and turned to the father: “What name shall I give him?” “Rocco John” was his immediate answer. I poured the water on his forehead in the ancient ritual: “Rocco John, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then I anointed his forehead with the Sacred Chrism. He now belonged forever to Jesus Christ. His soul was impressed with the indelible mark of baptism and the seal that only God can see; the seal God looks for at the day of the great Resurrection.
I turned to the Father and told him I would now administer the sacrament of Confirmation. I asked him for a Confirmation name. It took about 2 seconds for the father’s quick response: “Thomas Aquinas.” I was caught off-guard by the name of the great saint. The epiclesis prayer calling down the Holy Spirit upon the infant sealed the little fellow with the fullness of the Holy Spirit. He was all set!
Rocco John Thomas Aquinas lived for 7 more years until last week when I buried him in that place called Brooklyn. I had never seen such a tiny coffin. His whole life had been lived on a respirator and he was tended to day and night by those faithful parents who never left his side. The cemetery was particularly hard because it was the first time that his mother would be separated from him. He lived his whole life upon the cross. Rocco never once spoke a single word, but at his funeral the church was filled with countless young and old whose hearts had heard his silent voice. It was amazing to think that so many were so moved by a fragile little child with such disability. During the eulogy his father shocked us when he said the doctors had suggested that Rocco not be allowed to be born as his life would never accomplish much and he would never be able to interact with others. I wondered if any of those doctors were in that overflowing church?
If you look at a picture of Saint Rocco you will notice something interesting. Being a priest, I know all these seemingly useless things. Saint Rocco is the only saint who is portrayed as pointing to his infirmity: Saint Rocco points to the lesion-mark from the plague upon his leg. His little dog always sits at his side as St. Rocco displays his sickness. Rocco never hid his infirmity and that was precisely what drew others to him.
The Catholic Church is both loved and hated throughout the world for one immutable principle: we uphold the absolute dignity of every single human person from the moment of conception until natural death no matter its condition. Every life is sacred, has value and is to be protected. Servant of God Terrence Cardinal Cooke once wrote something so profound that I put it onto my mother’s funeral cards after a dozen years of Alzheimer’s: “Life is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by illness or weakness, hunger or poverty, physical or mental diseases, loneliness or old age.”