It was a recent Sunday morning, and the Sunday school class of parents and children preparing to be received into the church at Easter had gathered in preparation for receiving communion. Kneeling on the floor, I recited the prayer they would say before receiving communion. Suddenly, a good friend stormed into my class and demanded, “I need to see you now, this is important.”

Seeing her desperate look, I got up quickly and went into the hallway with her. Fighting tears, she told me, “Your class needs to pray for Katie now. She’s on a morphine drip. She needs all the prayers she can get.”

My head swarmed. Here’s faith in action with not a moment to spare. I knew that there’s no recovery from a morphine drip. It was only a matter of time. How much do I tell them? Will these children be able to hear this? Katie is one of them.

I didn’t have it together, yet I couldn’t hold it back. “This is why we’re here, a community of faith gathered needs to pray for one of its own. A little girl named Katie is suffering from cancer, and I just got word. She’s on a morphine drip – she needs our prayers now,” I cried. And silence followed. And then we said a prayer.

By the time class ended, I received word that 9-year-old Katie Wittmer had died.

There is no good time to hear of death or impending death. It calls you to drop everything and really reflect. Somehow, you always remember exactly where you were when you got word. The news sticks with you, and you grow from it. At least that’s my experience.

Growing up, I was exposed to too many young people dying. For some reason, childhood cancers and accidents had struck my hometown. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been to five funerals for young people. The fear of death was debilitating. Where did they go? Would they rot in the grave? The land of nothingness had me lay awake at night in sheer panic. Had I known God back then, my childhood would have been so much better.

I recall my squirming discomfort in a pew of a Catholic church. Observing the rituals, motions, prayers and responses had made me painfully aware that my faith was lacking. Lost in the mystery of it all, I was consumed by it in a most bizarre way. A panic attack had me coughing uncontrollably. Yet, something in me yearned to be able to make it through a Mass without gasping for breath. This humbling experience would later be my call to discover faith and the church more deeply.

In the context of faith, life seemed to make more sense. It is a journey, and the ultimate destination is heaven. My fear of death ceased. When I became a baptized member of God’s family, my life was different and part of something bigger: God’s plan, not mine. I was able to let go and trust in God when things happened that made no sense to me.

And there are plenty of things that don’t make sense. Childhood disease is one of those mysteries. Why would God rob a young child of a life, removing her from a strong, loving family, a neighborhood, and a community?

God works in mysterious ways. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that everything happens for a reason. And bad things become good in strange ways. In sadness we are called together, and we grow from the experience.

The funeral Mass for Katie Wittmere last week had me recall my childhood funeral anxiety, but this time, I felt at peace. It was celebrated by Bishop Malone, three priests and a deacon. A eulogy was delivered by her mother, a rosary was said before the funeral began. I looked around. Several children were there, and through the tears of sadness and loss, there was also comfort and peace in these children. This faith experience brought me to another level: I believe I attended the funeral Mass of a future saint.

As her mother delivered the eulogy, she shared the last few weeks of her daughter’s life. “Are you afraid to die?” she asked her daughter.

“I don’t think about it,” Katie replied, requesting that family members not cry. In the simplicity of Katie’s life – games and pizza, ice cream and sunsets – each day was, in Katie’s words, the best day of her life. It was Katie’s love and devotion to the rosary and her faith that made living with cancer a gift of faith to others. Katie’s mother pleaded: Please don’t forget my Katie.

Who could forget? Katie’s faith serves as a reminder. When you live a life of faith, there is no reason to fear death. In simplicity, each day can be the best day of your life. And when the going gets tough, put your trust in God. There’s no doubt, God’s plan for Katie was to inspire others to discover or grow in faith through prayer. Please pray for Katie’s family.


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