Early in his career, pioneer pediatrician and geneticist Jérôme Lejeune wanted to be a surgeon. After missing the test three times for various reasons, he realized it was not meant to be. Even this first detail reveals a person who sees life as a path that opens up over time. Lejeune found his life's work while treating his young patients with Down syndrome. After hearing his daughter Clara Gaymard's account of her father yesterday at the the New York Encounter, one is struck by Lejeune's awareness of his vocation and of a great capacity for affection, with his family, friends and especially his patients. Dr. John Haas, of the Pontifical Academy of Life, also recalled Lejeune's warm encouragement of his own work.
In 1958, at the time of Lejeune's groundbreaking discovery of the extra chromosome causing Down syndrome, which ushered in the new field of cytogenetics, these afflicted children were "hidden" according to Gaymard. They were stigmatized and denied an education. The discovery that a mental disease could have a genetic cause offered new hope. She described how her father helped the parents accept the child as their own and not just a disease, asking first for the little one's name and doing an examination while the child was perched on the mother's knees.
Some years later, when a campaign for abortion started in France, those particularly targeted were the handicapped. A young patient named Pierre was weeping after hearing this on the TV. After hearing this from his mother, Lejeune resolved to fight for their lives and to find a way to help them recover. Gaymard recalled as a child seeing graffiti in the town calling for the doctor to be killed after his political involvement.
Later, a friend read the news story of a divorce case in Maryville, Tennessee in 1989 involving seven embryos that were to be destroyed. Over the husband's objections, the wife wanted to see these embryos live. In fact, she offered to give them to another mother if she was not allowed to give birth to them herself. Lejeune was so astonished by finding another case like Solomon's, of a mother giving up her rights to see her child live, that he hopped on a plane and testified at the trial, with a successful outcome.
Lejeune insisted that it was science that taught him that life begins exactly at conception, and that human life differs from animal life not because of love or intelligence, but because of the unique "ability to admire". He cautioned that: "Technology is cumulative, wisdom is not." Gaymard recalled that her father used the words from the beginning of the Gospel of John to describe the original design of human life: " In the beginning is the message, and the message is in life, and the message is life. And if the message is a human message, then the life is a human life."
Pope John Paul II invited Lejeune to be one of the first members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1974 and subsequently they became friends. In 1994, shortly before his death, the pope started the Pontifical Academy of Life, naming Lejeune as its first president. Hours before the attempt on the Pope's life, the doctor had been to lunch with the pope. When in turn Lejeune fell ill with cancer, the Pope kept asking for news of him and was informed immediately after his death. On receiving the Sacrament on his deathbed, Lejeune told the priest: "I have never betrayed my faith." In 2007, a cause of canonization was opened for "Servant of God" Jérôme Lejeune.
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The New York Encounter is indeed unlike any other cultural event in the United States in its approach and content, totally transcending the cultural divisions that threaten the future of our society. It also escapes the search for a “common ground” that maintains and feeds the relativism that is paralyzing us. The purpose of its discussions, exhibits, concerts and theatrical performances is to build new friendships, to learn, and to celebrate life’s beauty. All of its events are open to the public and are free, with the exception of the theatrical performance (this year it will be Paul Claudel’s play The Tidings Brought to Mary on Saturday night).
"The New York Encounter: a Different Cultural Event", Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete
The New York Encounter festival runs from Friday, January 14 - Monday, January 17, 2011
Manhattan Center - Hammerstein Ballroom 311 West 34th Street at 8th Avenue - New York, NY 10001
AVSI-USA to participate in New York Encounter, January 14-17, 2011
AVSI-USA will participate in the annual New York Encounter cultural festival to take place in the heart of Manhattan from January 14-17, 2011. The event is open to the public and all exhibits and most presentations are free of charge. See the NYE website for more information.
AVSI-USA's participation will commemorate in a particular way the first year since the devastating earthquake in Haiti on January 12, 2010. Opportunities to learn more about AVSI's response in Haiti and to speak with medical volunteers who spent time there will be extended.
Read more information on AVSI's response in Haiti.
An Unusual Encounter:
The above links are to Suzanne's reporting on the 2010 New York Encounter.
"Passing into the Marriott Hotel lobby, and up the escalators to the sixth floor, one enters an entirely new world. At the New York Encounter, no one seizes me by the coat to sell me anything. The only noise is of animated conversations – the sounds of friendship. Welcomed at the desk, the volunteer there, a woman I’ve never met before, pours me a cup of water from her personal bottle when she overhears me say that I am thirsty."
The 2011 New York Encounter is from January 14-17.