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Pope Benedict encouraged these parents to share the story of their unborn baby’s fatal diagnosis

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Jordan Allott

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 07/07/22

A “deep, deep faith” and countless prayers sustained Maria and Joe when they endured every parent’s worst fear.

Before it happened to her, Maria had never known someone whose baby had a fatal diagnosis before being born.

But she happened to stumble upon a news article about a fatal prenatal diagnosis shortly before she conceived her fourth child. And with that article, she says, “God prepared my heart a little bit.”

Maria and Joe Keller are an extraordinary couple by any measure. She is from Spain, and he is from the U.S.; they met when she was visiting his extended family as an exchange student. They had a beautiful whirlwind romance before settling near Chicago to raise their seven children.

They are also a couple of strong faith. Maria is the third generation in her family to receive formation from Opus Dei, and her family has been faithfully Catholic for generations.

It is that “deep, deep faith” that sustained her and Joe when they faced every parent’s worst fear.  

In early 2011, Joe and Maria were overjoyed to find out they were expecting their fourth child. But then, during a routine prenatal ultrasound, baby James Nicholas was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta Type 2, a rare and fatal condition. 

Their beloved little boy would not live for long, if at all, after he was born. You can see their entire story here:

Maria shared with Aleteia how she turned to God to help her carry the crushing pain of his diagnosis:

I went on a retreat a week after the diagnosis, and while we were praying the Stations of the Cross, I noticed when Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus. That was an amazing consolation to see the Son of God, God Himself, staggering under the cross, crushed under the cross, and the soldiers have to force someone to carry the cross because he cannot take a step forward. 

She realized, in that moment, that she would not have to carry her cross alone. 

I thought, “This is who I need God to be, I need God to be my Simon.” That became my war cry. I tell Our Lord, “Be my Simon, help me with this cross. I cannot do this, this is crushing me.” And He always, always helps me. 

She and Joe began to ask everyone they encountered to pray for their little boy. “We became what I like to call prayer beggars,” she said. 

That simple act of asking for prayers became a gentle way that little James Nicholas changed many lives for the better. Maria said,

When you ask the mailman and the grocery store clerk for prayers, and ask everyone to pray for a miracle, no one says, “No, I don’t pray, I don’t believe in miracles.” They all say, “Yes, I will pray, I will do what you asked me to.” Our son, in his short life, made a deep impact. He had so many people praying for him, even if it was the first time or the only time they prayed in their life.

The Kellers even asked for prayers from the prelate of Opus Dei and the pope himself. And to their surprise, the pope wrote back to them. 

Pope Benedict XVI sent the Kellers a letter on the very last day of his pontificate. He promised them his prayers and encouraged them to share their story, saying that the world needs testimonies like this, of parents loving their children under any circumstances.

“I understand why we call the pope ‘the holy father’ because he really loves with a fatherly heart,” Maria said. “We got so much consolation, peace and joy knowing that he was praying for us.” 

The “army” of family, friends, and complete strangers storming Heaven with prayers for baby James helped the couple get through the pregnancy and birth. “It was a very difficult time but also a very grace-filled time,” Maria recalled. 

She also received support from Be Not Afraid, an outreach group that supports parents through difficult prenatal diagnoses

Little James was born August 30, 2011, and died the next day. He lived for only 30 hours, but those hours changed the lives of so many people. 

 “The only thing this little boy experienced was love, a ton of love,” she said. “Every moment of his life was filled with the love of a lifetime.”

James helped so many people to realize how short life is, and how immeasurably precious.

“We only have a short time with our children,” Maria said. “Every child is a gift from God, every child is a blessing. Love them and raise them up so you can be with them forever in Heaven, because that is the only thing that matters.”

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