It was the Sunday before the election.
Like most of the country, Southwestern Pennsylvania was in the midst of an intramural grab for the jugular, though everyone was looking forward to a late-afternoon break from the presidential election when the Steelers would take on the New York Giants. In this part of the country, there is religion, politics and the Steelers, though not necessarily in that order.
Then everything changed. In his nearly 25 years as a priest, Father David Bonnar said, “I have never experienced such a heart-wrenching moment.”
A mother had taken her 2-year-old to the Pittsburgh Zoo that Sunday. Holding him up to see the African painted dogs’ exhibit, the boy somehow fell, bounced twice on a protective screen, then fell 14 feet into the exhibit. The dogs attacked. The boy was killed.
And a community recoiled in silent horror.
The dead boy’s name was Maddox. He wore glasses. And he was baptized in the church of his funeral Mass.
His parents said that when Maddox ran he would turn his head in such a way that he was looking back on where he had been nearly more than where he was going. He was silly and precocious. He liked to play with trucks.
He was a 2-year-old, in other words, and ran and played and embraced the sheer joy of every day like 2-year-olds have done since time began.
Father Bonnar is the pastor of the boy’s young parents. Father Bonnar cited the old Patsy Cline song at the boy’s funeral Mass:
“If I could see the world through the eyes of a child, what a wonderful world this would be. There’d be no trouble and no strife, just a big happy life with a bluebird in every tree.”
That’s what hit so many so hard in the community. Maddox represented every little kid of every parent, grandparent, aunt and uncle, brother and sister, friend and neighbor. The kids we all want to protect as they look for bluebirds.
The time will come when fingers will be pointed. Make the inexplicable somehow understandable by finding someone to blame. We always need a scapegoat, someone to bear the sins of the community while banished to the wilderness.
There was a picture on the website of one of the daily newspapers. It was the end of the funeral Mass, the procession outside the church. Maddox’s mother has her head on her husband’s chest, her fingers splayed open in graceful pieta.
He has his arm around her as he looks toward the casket of his boy. No father — whether his child is six days or six decades old — could look at him and not see his own face, feel his own grief, measure his own compassion.
“We are with you, brother,” we all say. “We are with you.”
“To have faith,” Father Bonnar said at Maddox’s funeral Mass, “is to surrender our lives in loving trust to the Lord Jesus often without knowing all the answers to all of our questions, but knowing that he is with us every step of the way. He doesn’t abandon us.”
Hope in the classic Christian sense is not mere wishing something to be true. Hope is confidence in Truth. Hope is serenity in Truth. Hope is firmness and constancy in Truth. Hope is certainty in Truth, that if man is faithful to God, God will be faithful to man.
That’s the message of Advent — waiting in hope.
His parents asked that toy trucks be donated in his name. Toys that could find their way to a children’s charity at Christmas. The funeral home and the church were soon inundated with toy trucks of every shape and size. No one had ever seen anything like it.
As Father Bonnar said, “there is a future to hope in.”
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.