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A messy birth and a vulnerable baby


‘What Are We Waiting For Finding Meaning in Advent and Christmas’ cover image

Before I became a Jesuit, I was a diocesan seminarian, and during the Christmas holidays, I worked in the pastoral care department of a big Catholic public hospital. At a Christmas party, I met the charge nurse of the maternity ward. Pleading that because I was a celibate I would never be at a birth, I enquired if I might be allowed to come and see'. 

The charge nurse thought that would be fine. Six weeks later I got the call. Apparently a student priest watching a person have a baby is not an easy sell! But Mary was sixteen, had been dumped by her nineteen year old boyfriend and shunned by her family. A kindly seminarian was better than no one at all.

On arrival at the maternity ward, I did ante-natal class 101 in ten minutes. All sorts of commands were barked at me:

- hold Mary’s hand;
- when the midwife tells Mary to push and keep it coming, keep it coming, keep it coming' - you say it too;
- don’t get in the road;
- and don’t faint!

Mary and I met six hours into her labor, which was an unusual circumstance within which to meet your birthing partner.' She had very little small talk, maybe because she had no breath at all. From my vast experience of child birth, I thought everything was going along swimmingly until the doctor arrived to perform an episiotomy. If you don’t know what that is, you don’t want to, and I wish I never did. I swear before God that analgesia would have been invented centuries earlier if men had to go through all of this. We would go on epidurals in the sixth month.

The baby arrived minutes later. Mary wept. She had very good cause to weep. I wept for no good reason, and the charge nurse wept because I was weeping. There is something so primal and human about the moment of birth that it bonds us to each other. Friendship born in the trenches took on a new meaning for me.

After the tears came the laughter and joy. The reality of Mary’s tough situation was happily postponed.

On discharge, Mary asked me to baptise the baby. I couldn’t. I was a long way from being ordained a deacon. I arranged for a priest friend to do it and became Benjamin Michael’s godfather. I have stayed in touch with them for the last 30 years. Mary went on to have three more boys to three different fathers. Tommy, the last dad, is now her devoted husband.

When he was four, I got Benjamin into the local Catholic primary school where the principal was Sr. Mary Francis Xavier. She was formidable but fair. She took an interest in Benny and his brothers. She was able to arrange for a scholarship for each of them. Sister only had to go to Mary’s home once to demand that the boys got out of bed, were fed, cleaned, dressed, taken to school on time, and later did their homework. It paid off.

Benjamin was a good student and Sister Francis Xavier despaired that Mary would be sending him to the local high school. It had a terrible reputation. Sister enrolled all the boys for scholarships to a Christian Brothers High School. On their own merits, Benny, and his brothers in turn, won a place. Sister wins a place in heaven. Benny is a physiotherapist, Daniel is an accountant, Kai is a social worker, and Noah is a nurse. He has just finished obstetrics.

Mary works at the local supermarket. Twenty years ago I received her and Tommy into the Catholic Church and married them in the eyes of God. She now volunteers at the St Vincent de Paul’s local hostel for homeless women. Some of them are 16 years old and pregnant.

From a complex conception, a messy birth, a willing midwife, and a vulnerable baby, extraordinary goodness has flowed from one generation to the next.

Richard LeonardRichard Leonard SJ is Director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and BroadcastingThis article is an extract from his new book What Are We Waiting For Finding Meaning in Advent and Christmas (Paulist Press).



Topic tags: Richard Leonard, Advent, Christmas, birth, health, reproduction, family, celibacy, priesthood



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Existing comments

Wow! What an essay! I've worked on a Vinnies soup van for 30 years and seen the lot, murder, violence, alcoholics in the gutter, drugs, mental heath challenges, refugees, soup, sandwiches, fruit, and love, and giving, people from the four corners, the box of all sorts. When it comes down to it, it is the plain simple spirit of trying to do something, anything, to change the situation that people find themselves in. We have small successes and build big trusting community. Your essay is rich, Rich, RICH!

Ken | 17 December 2014  

Well, Richard, it sounded like you did the right thing (several times). It all goes to show how real pastoral work bears fruit. That fruit sometimes takes years. The nun you talk of sounds a sweetie beneath the tough exterior. Charity sometimes has to be like that to avoid exploitation. "Wet" charity is useless. It is good to hear something from a cleric which is not about despair, paedophilia etc. Good on you.

Edward Fido | 18 December 2014  

What an uplifting essay Richard, from such a small beginning. It may take years but simple acts can be life changing.

Brett | 18 December 2014  

This story has all it: rejection, acceptance, struggle, triumph and love. The birth of the baby is the central event. The pain and elation of birth. And then that same pain and elation is mirrored throughout life. Whether we are believers, or non-believers, at this time of year we are reminded of what is truly important.

Pam | 18 December 2014  

Thank you Richard for sharing your story....it's all about been moved out of our comfort zone and reaching out together and wow Miracles do happen

Maree | 18 December 2014  

I loved your story Richard

anna brown | 18 December 2014  

Congratulations, Richard, on your part in this great story. What a heart-warmer!

Joe Castley | 18 December 2014  

A terrific story about real life and giving people a chance!!

Tess | 18 December 2014  

All because a young seminarian facing a life of celibacy asked permission of a maternity nurse to be present at the birth of a child to a young mother. What a lovely reminder for us to ask the Holy Spirit that we be present in spirit at the birth of Jesus to a young mother all those centuries ago in Bethlehem.

Uncle Pat | 18 December 2014  

What a wonderful story for the week before Christmas. Thank you Richard for sharing some really Good News.

Maryrose Dennehy | 18 December 2014  

If only more men and single women could have Mary' s experience in giving birth one such as Richard Leonard present. The hospital weep often on these occasions as do the Mum's and Dad's It is a bonding exercise.

Bev Smith | 18 December 2014  

Richard, wow what a story. Please send it to Pope Francis he would love it. Best wishes to you, for Christmas. Ron.

Ron Hill | 18 December 2014  

As a celibate I too was privilged to watch the birth of one of my grand nephews and I too was overwhelmed by the courage of the birth mother, my niece! A beautiful story and great commitment from the family to you and you to the family! thank you!

Pia Galea | 18 December 2014  

Greetings Richard This is such a lovel happy account. You have gone up even further in my estimation and I am forwarding this to everyone I can think of. Happy Christmas

Rosanne Turner | 18 December 2014  

Thank you for this story. God bless you and all good people who do great kindnesses to others. Miracles happen all the time

Irena | 18 December 2014  

Walk with me. If only each one of us could walk with one extra special person through their days and all the days to follow. . This maybe my new year's resolution. To break down the huge task into just caring for one other person, Therin may lie a solution . Thanks Richard. A beautiful gift from you to me . Happy Christmas to you. I will buy your book when it becomes available.

Name | 19 December 2014  

Hi Richard, loved this story Fr Jim Cronan told me to read it this morning. It reminded me of the time when I was staying with Joan expecting the twins & you would drive me to Drs appointments!!! Merry Christmas. Love Helen.

Helen Petrie. Taroom | 21 December 2014  

Richard, beautifully conveyed in your own inimitable style. Thank-you.

Paul McEvey | 22 December 2014  

I have attended all three of my kid's births- a sobering experience. I am greatly impressed by your story-what a wonderful ending too! Thanks for sharing it with us this Christmas time

Gavin O'Brien | 29 December 2014  

"I swear before God that analgesia would have been invented centuries earlier if men had to go through all of this. We would go on epidurals in the sixth month." This line makes me smile. I can't wait for the book. Thank you.

Lyndel Petersen | 20 January 2015  

Thank you for this inspiring, delightful story of God in our midst and for the courage of the then young seminarian to risk attending a birth!

Lucy van Kessel | 16 June 2017  

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