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The world remembers Professor Jérôme Lejeune as the world-class geneticist who discovered the genetic cause of Down's syndrome. While his scientific accomplishments go far beyond that landmark discovery, those who knew Dr. Lejeune personally saw a different side of his nature. They saw his heart and the great compassion he had for all who suffered.

Jérôme Lejeune

No virtue is more misunderstood than compassion. The truly compassionate person loves so selflessly that he willingly takes on the pain of the sufferer. The person who confuses compassion with pity is repulsed by suffering and distances himself, emotionally and physically, from the sufferer. Today people kill in the name of "compassion," as the only remedy they can think of is to put the sufferer out of his misery.

"Compassionate killing" belongs to the "culture of death." True compassion belongs to the "culture of life." If we are looking for a role model who clearly and inspiringly embodies true compassion, we need look no further than to Jérôme Lejeune.

The world remembers Professor Lejeune as the world-class geneticist who discovered the genetic cause — trisomy 21 — of Down's syndrome. His scientific accomplishments, however, go far beyond that landmark discovery. He was the first to establish folic acid as a preventative for spina bifida. He was a consultant to the United Nations as an expert on atomic radiation. The last of his award-winning publications was devoted to cancer, the very illness that claimed his life.

Man of the Heart

Those who knew Dr. Lejeune personally saw a different side of his nature. They saw his heart and the great compassion he had for all who suffered. His true vocation was not following the path of a geneticist or a research scientist or a globetrotting lecturer, although he fulfilled all of these avocations admirably. It was, rather, following the path of a physician, a minister to those who suffer. Because he identified so compassionately with the afflicted, he was determined to do the research needed to find new cures and to encourage others to share in his mission. "If I find out how to cure trisomy 21," he once said, "then that would clear the way for curing all the other diseases that have a genetic origin. The patients are waiting for me; I have to find it."

We now have, thanks to his daughter Clara, an intimate portrait of Dr. Lejeune: Life Is a Blessing: Jérôme Lejeune, My Father. She tells us that "through love for the sick person, respect for his life and dignity, and compassion in the face of suffering, his practice of medicine was at the service of mankind and uniquely for that purpose." Lejeune was, above all, despite his impressive intellect, a man of the heart.

Living for Others

He retained his compassionate bond with the suffering even when he was near death and suffering acutely from both the cancer that finally killed him and the massive chemotherapy he was undergoing. As his daughter testifies, he would answer the telephone while exhausted, between bouts of vomiting, in order to discuss a therapeutic hypothesis with a colleague. "His suffering was intolerable at times," writes Clara, "but he was always considerate of others; he put himself in their place."

During his last days, when what little strength he had was ebbing from his body, he identified with the motto of the Roman Legionary, "Et si fellitur de genu pugnat" ("And if he should fall, he fights on his knees"). For Lejuene, life, compassion, and service were all inseparably intertwined.

He passed away, in accord with his presentiment, on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994. Pope John Paul II delivered a eulogy the next day in which he referred to "our brother Jèrôme," and stated that "if the Father who is in heaven called him from this earth on the very day of Christ's Resurrection, it is difficult not to see in this coincidence a sign."

Feeling His Pain

Lejeune and the Holy Father were close friends. Professor Lejeune and his wife had enjoyed lunch with the Pope on that near-fatal day of May 13, 1981, when an assassin's bullet rang out in Vatican Square. That night Lejeune experienced stomach pains so severe that he was taken by ambulance to a hospital. "No one understood what was wrong," writes his daughter, "and he experienced the pain of the Pope's wound." He would have surgery, as did the Holy Father. Their temperature curves were similar, and they left the hospital on the same day. Was it "coincidence"? Was it a "God-incidence"? Or was it the result of a compassion between spiritual brothers that passes understanding?

Lejeune could never do enough for his patients. Two images provided him with recurring guidance and inspiration. The first is the final line from Brahms' Requiem: "Blessed are those who die in the Lord. For their works follow them." Lejeune's compassionate work continues under the auspices of "La Foundation Jérôme Lejeune," which was established in his name to continue his research into the causes and treatments of mental handicaps. The second is St. Vincent de Paul's reply when the Queen asked him, "What must one do for one's neighbor?" "More!"



DeMarco, Donald. "Compassion." Lay Witness (Jan/Feb. 2003).

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.  DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2003 LayWitness
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