The church was overflowing, more than 1500 mourners filling the church and spilling out into the courtyard. Twelve priests stood on the altar and more priests were seated in the congregation. The Knights of Columbus, the Knights of Malta, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians were all represented. Temple University Hospital staff and entire student bodies of several local schools turned out for the Mass of Christian burial. Had a famous local politician died? A major humanitarian? A popular author or speaker?
No, this funeral was for a twelve-year-old boy. Which proves the point that holiness is not only clearly recognizable, but achievable by all—even children. Even those with serious handicaps.
Saint Anna Wang was only fourteen when she refused to renounce her faith, even under threat of torture. Awaiting her beheading, she joyfully declared, "The door of heaven is open to all.”
February 4th, 2008, the door of heaven opened to twelve year old Michael Joseph Pennefather. Born with a severely deformed spine, and enduring more than twenty-five surgeries in his short life, he had never experienced a day without pain. Yet he was never seen without his characteristic sunny grin.
It was a miracle he lived this long. He nearly didn’t survive his birth. A priest with a gift for healing was brought into the neo-natal intensive care unit. After Father Lubey prayed over Michael, his vital signs revived. One of the NICU nurses caring for him was a former neighbor of mine. A fallen away Catholic, she had not been a believer for many years. But she saw the tiny baby come back to life, and something else might have come back to life that day.
Michael’s dad is a 6’2” former Providence College basketball player who played under coach Rick Pitino, and who now plays for his pastor, Father Bob Cilinski’s basketball team of priests. “It’s a tough game, Mike,”sighs Father Bob as he sits down on the bench during an Earthen Vessels game. “Don’t worry, Father Bob. You’ve got my dad!” grins Michael. “It’s all about recruiting, isn’t it, Mike?” replies Father Bob sagely.
A big man with a bigger heart, Dick Pennefather teaches and coaches at a small, unpretentious Catholic school in Manassas, Virginia. At Seton, school uniforms actually cover the girls’ knees and the curriculum emphasizes the faith above all things. Every year “Mr. P” reads the story of Blessed Margaret of Castello to his seventh grade Religion class. The first child of a powerful Italian noble couple, Margaret was (to her parents’ dismay) born blind, hunch-backed and a dwarf. Imprisoned and later abandoned by her own parents, as a third order Dominican, she lived an exemplary life of prayer, penance and service until her death at age 33.
Like Blessed Margaret, Michael was never was able to stand up straight. But he had his dad’s big toothy smile and twinkle in his eye. Father Bob said that whenever Mike was around, you felt the presence of God.
Father Bob had season tickets to the Redskins and was feeling discouraged as he watched his beloved team losing to the Cowboys. But then he saw Dick Pennefather carrying his son all the way around the stadium just to say “hi” to him, and he cheered up. That’s the way it was with Mike.
Make a Wish Foundation sent Michael to the Super Bowl and the Knights of Malta got him to Lourdes. When there was no instant miracle, Michael was sad, not so much for himself, but for his classmates back home. “I am afraid they will be disappointed that my back is not straight.” But don’t worry, he continued, “my back will be straight in heaven!”
The Holy Father tells us in Spe Salvi that “we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full” (Spe Salvi, 39).
Former basketball pro and three-time Big East Player of the Year, Michael’s aunt Shelly (now Sister Rose Marie) had a unique double-jointed wrist that enabled her to get extra spin on the ball and become Villanova’s all-time leading scorer. She was a witness to her family and friends as she threw it all aside to follow the greatest hope of all. Instead of a life of wealth and fame, she took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure, as a Poor Clare nun. She now embraces the silence of prayer, her apostolate the care of the universe: “The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish.” 
We need such heroic witnesses, because our society abounds with bad examples. Like Margaret of Castello’s wealthy parents, Pulitzer prize winning playwright Arthur Miller also had a secret, unwanted child. His son Daniel is a Down-syndrome child whom he institutionalized at birth and, during his life, never acknowledged. Those who know and love Daniel Miller say “what a loss” that his father never knew this truly extraordinary individual.
“It is not by side-stepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (Spe Salvi, 37).
A twelve-year-old boy who never experienced a day without pain, whose beatific smile brightened the days of his family and friends, teaches us about the capacity for suffering with love.
We are each one of us, created for a reason, called to greatness. It doesn’t matter whether we are young or old, strong or weak, whether our gift is a heavenly jumpshot or a heavenly smile, whether we have completed a doctorate or only sixth grade. We can each do our part to keep the spark of love and hope alive in the world.
Our salvation is not something private, for me alone. It is said that “God opens the door for people to meet people.” We are instruments of one another’s hope. Ultimately, God is our great hope. Along the way, we meet those who show us how to choose goodness, to suffer with a smile, and to love.
Thank you, Michael, for giving us this witness, for showing us what it means to live life to the full.