Behind the pope’s kiss of a disabled boy is a family’s story of faith

It’s been nine days since their family’s sudden moment of grace. Nine days since Pope Francis laid his hands on their 10-year-old son.

And now it’s 6 a.m. on a Monday, and Chuck Keating is laying his own hands on Michael’s body. Chuck soothes his boy, whose limbs are stiff from severe cerebral palsy, so he can gently roll Michael over in bed to change his diaper.

Michael, one thin arm outstretched, starts moaning.

The Keatings’ lives are defined by moments like this one, when it’s not even dawn yet, and Michael’s feeding tube monitor is beeping, and his twin brother, Chris, is inventing his own smoothie recipe in the kitchen, and older sister Katie is trying to find her field hockey gear.

Their days unfold under the wooden cross above his bed, and under the words on his bedroom wall: “Everyday holds a possibility of a miracle.”

A miracle — they always believed in it. And then they got one.

Michael’s moment

They almost didn’t bring Michael to the pope’s arrival.

Church officials had picked the band at Bishop Shanahan High School, where Chuck is the band leader, to play at Philadelphia International Airport to welcome Pope Francis on Sept. 26.

Chuck, 45, and his wife, Kristin, 43, lifelong Catholics who met in college, were thrilled.

Kristin, a fourth-grade public school teacher, planned to take Chris and Katie, but she thought bringing Michael was out of the question.

The lift on the family’s wheelchair-accessible van does not work anymore, making it difficult to transport him. His body can get dangerously overheated anytime he is outside in hot weather. He needs to be catheterized every four hours.

But then the family’s priest gave a homily at Mass about the many Philadelphians who were vowing to leave town during the papal visit because of road closures.

“He said that people shouldn’t be going out of their way to avoid the pope, they should be going out of their way to do what they can to be there,” Chuck recalls.

He told Kristin: Let’s bring Michael.

So all five Keatings met the excited band in the Bishop Shanahan parking lot. As Francis stepped off the plane hours later, the band played the song closest to Philadelphians’ hearts: “Gonna Fly Now” from the movie “Rocky.”

Minutes later, the 78-year-old pontiff got into a waiting car. It began to drive away — and then Francis spotted Michael. He motioned to the driver to stop the black Fiat.

And then suddenly 13-year-old Katie was taking video, and crying, as the leader of their faith strode up to her brother, kissed his head and uttered a blessing. Chuck was looking away, overcome by emotion, then turning back to shake Francis’ hand. Ten-year-old Chris was putting his hands to his head, thinking, “I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

Kristin was squeezing the pope’s hands — “so soft” — and understanding only the emotion, not the words Francis said in a language she does not speak. Michael was raising his eyes at the moment of the pope’s kiss.

In an instant, the photos and videos were tearing across the world thanks to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

But even as the moment unfolded at the airport, reality was intruding. As Kristin wiped away tears and gave interviews, she had one urgent thought: “It’s been four hours. Michael needs to be cathed. Now.”

On a tarmac far from a bathroom, Kristin improvised a shield using a Bishop Shanahan High School banner. Just a few feet away from the swarm of reporters, she crouched unnoticed to catheterize her son.

‘Are you taking them?’

Kristin had been in a supermarket checkout line when her cellphone rang.

She and Chuck, who’d struggled to have children, had already adopted once. Katie, born in Texas, was a bubbly 2-year-old. Now they were awaiting the birth of twin boys to a mother in Kansas to complete their family.

Then the call on Oct. 27, 2004: Your twins have been born.

“Wrong family,” Kristin said serenely in the grocery store. “Our twins are due between Christmas and New Year’s.”

The representative of the adoption agency explained that these were the right twins, born at the wrong time. Michael was already moving into the birth canal when the obstetrician realized that Chris was breach, feet-first, the Keatings were later told. The doctor did an emergency C-section that left Michael severely injured.

“We need to know whether you’re taking them,” the adoption specialist said.

Kristin says she has never once questioned their decision to adopt Chris and Michael.

Not during those early weeks in Kansas, when Kristin and Chuck took turns flying back and forth, trying to work, take care of their toddler daughter and be there for their sons in neonatal intensive care. Not when the boys were transferred to Pennsylvania, still so sick that each required his own medical flight, and Michael’s lung collapsed during the plane ride. Not when Chris was well enough to leave the hospital, but Michael spent his first Christmas in intensive care. Not once, in all the years that followed.

The Keatings count the surgeries — one to insert Michael’s feeding tube port and one for the pump that dispenses a muscle relaxer inside of him, one to put a rod in his spine, then one to put steel plates in his hips. They number, too, all the times they are at a loss to comfort their other two children when their brother is in danger or in pain.

‘Michael is a teacher'

The Keatings believe in the power of prayer — even the prayers that seem to go unanswered.

Kristin prayed to get pregnant, through three failed rounds of in vitro fertilization.

“I was very down on everything, and just thinking that life didn’t seem fair at the time,” she says. “When Katie was born, I just realized that everything does happen for a reason. This is what was meant to be.”

When Chuck learned he would be a father to twin boys, he started imagining backyard games of catch. “I have an infield now,” he thought.

Instead, he found himself learning to work his son’s feeding tube and to administer an enema.

“Everyone always wonders, why would God do this to one of his children? I questioned that for a while,” Chuck says. But caring for Michael has given him an answer.

“I think Michael is a teacher,” he says. “Michael has taught me quite a bit about patience, love, the importance of what a hug and a kiss means.”

When Michael is in the hospital, Katie is the one to ask most often, “Are you sure he’s not in pain?” Once, when a doctor said Michael would need to stay at the hospital a day longer than planned, Katie, then 8, demanded by phone, “Let me have a talk with that doctor.”

Someday, she wants to work with children who have disabilities in a school like the one Michael attends.

“When he just smiles,” she says, “it makes me happy.”

Communion denied

Caring for Michael strains the Keatings emotionally, and also physically. Kristin has had two hernia surgeries from lifting her 70-pound son and his bulky wheelchair.

The burden is also financial: There’s the mortgage on the wheelchair-accessible house they built 50 miles west of Philadelphia. The caregivers they hire to help, on days their insurance plan won’t cover the cost. The $60,000 wheelchair-accessible van they need.

“We and other parents like us are constantly fighting — whether it’s the insurance company or the county or someone — for what Michael qualifies for,” Kristin says.

Some fights are far more emotional.

When Chris was ready for his first Holy Communion, in second grade, Kristin and Chuck assumed the twins would receive their first Communion side by side. Their parish priest said no: Because Michael could not recite his first confession and could not swallow the wafer on his own, the priest said he was not allowed to receive the sacrament.

“First penance? I said, ‘The kid hasn’t sinned,’ ” Chuck recalls, still enraged at the memory. “I said, ‘This is the last time you will see me in this church. He’s a child of God.’ 

The Keatings found a different parish, St. Peter’s in West Brandywine. Michael received his first Communion at St. Peter’s alongside Chris. Katie was the one to hand her brothers the host.

“That was, we thought, the most special moment of our lives,” Kristin says.

Since the papal kiss, strangers have written the family to share their own struggles of raising children with disabilities.

“When I saw the Holy Father bless your son, I couldn’t help but imagine him blessing my Ryan,” one father of a 19-year-old with cerebral palsy wrote to the Keatings. “It’s a hard battle. . . . Please remember, we’re never really alone.”

A miracle’s afterglow

The glow of the miracle still permeates their home.

“Every time we look at Michael now, we see it,” Chuck says.

Kristin agrees. “So many times we feel alone. People who love us, who care about us — no one knows what we go through sometimes…” she says.

“I feel like so many more people now are keeping him in their prayers. When he goes into a surgery, he’s going to have people praying for him. The pope kissed our son. He’s saying that it’s going to be OK, and I’m here with you.”

They have never been sure how much Michael understands of the world they strive to create for him each day. Chuck believes he recognizes their voices. Kristin believes he knows his own name.

But they are certain of some things. Certain that Michael feels joy at his siblings’ caresses. Certain that God hears their prayers for him. And certain that when Francis blessed him, Michael smiled.