Nothing can prepare you for seeing your one-year-old nephew in a casket. Nothing can take away his parents' agony. And nobody could have expected how much good work this helpless baby would do in 14 months.
John Paul Kilner was born with an advanced case of spinal muscular atrophy. Nearly paralyzed at birth, his body deteriorated further as he grew.
My sister-in-law Elena and her husband Pat brought JP home as soon as possible, and began the 24-hour a day job of keeping him alive. Someone was always at JP's side, monitoring blood-oxygen levels, suctioning mucus through his tracheostomy tube.
If Elena's younger sister Suzanne (now a nurse) or a hired nurse named Donnisse weren't on duty, either Pat or Elena did without sleep.
Daily saving the life of an immobile kid with a fatal disease raises some fundamental questions. What is the point of such a life? Which raises the prior question: What is the purpose of any life?
Pat and Elena are devout Catholics from strong families, but their answer to this question can't be set aside as some teaching in the Catechism. It's a truth written on the human heart.
Jesus said that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor. This is our purpose. This view is not uniquely Christian. It's understood in other religions and in secular worldviews.
In this regard, John Paul lived a superior life. He exuded love. Before he lost control of his facial muscles, he beamed smiles that made grown men sob. Babies can love those around them with the pure, unconditional love we all should show.
Also, JP drew love from others. Neighbors, relatives and strangers cooked meals and gave time, equipment and money to help the Kilners. JP's brothers and sister showered him with affection. And Pat and Elena sacrificed immensely to care for him.
Before the wake at St. Patrick's in Rockville, during an observance called Stations of the Cross, we read a Gospel passage in which Christ explains our duty to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick.
"Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine," the Lord says in this passage, "you did for me."
Clearly a call to charity, this is also an exaltation of parenthood. Even moreso, this exalts the work of caring for helpless JP.
Tribulations both reveal character and form it. JP's struggles revealed his parents' heroic virtue and fostered virtue in others.
Pat and Elena saw John Paul as a blessing, and they generously shared that blessing with the world. They took him wherever they could, in a chair rigged with a ventilator and an IV. Elena shared wider, by penning hopeful, contemplative letters to John Paul every few weeks, which she posted on a blog.
One friend of mine, who never met the Kilners, read the "Letters to John Paul" blog. She wrote me, "John Paul's story made me want to be a better person."
John Paul continued shaping souls even in dying. A priest at St. Patrick's took confessions during and after the wake. He commented afterwards that he heard some of the more honest, searching and contrite confessions he's ever heard.
More than 500 people attended the beautiful funeral. One non-Catholic mourner was moved so much by the Mass she told Pat, "Now I understand why you're Catholic."
John Paul, who never spoke a word in his life, was the greatest evangelist of love, faith, virtue and hope I have ever met.
I don't think Pat and Elena foresaw all this as they sacrificed and toiled for JP. They just did what was right, understanding the "incomparable worth of the human person," in the words of JP's namesake, Pope John Paul II.
Father Drew Royals, Pat's high school friend, gave the homily. He said to Pat and Elena, "You saw so clearly that John Paul's life possessed a dignity that was radically equal to that of everybody else. His medical condition was simply the battlefield upon which this young warrior-prince would carry out his campaign."
At the funeral Mass, we mourned a calamity. The pain of JP's death pierces the heart, again and again.
Also, we thanked God we were blessed with John Paul for 442 days. Fr. Drew reminded us that "this blessing carries with it a great responsibility."
"If our love for this little one has enlarged our hearts," Fr. Drew said, "then that means that now we must love all the more. Your work is not done."
Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.