How a baby born at 26 weeks became a light of faith to his family

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“The doctor said that, if I wanted to save my baby’s life, I had to give birth in the next hour. I was only 26 weeks pregnant,” Maria Ramos recalled with tears in her eyes the painful moment in which she thought she would lose her child Mateo. Her husband, Ricardo Luna, and their two children: Judith, 11, and Ricardo, 9; with watery eyes sat beside her, remembering the four months they had spent in the University of Colorado-Anschutz Hospital, seeing Mateo fight for his life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

And yet, amid the scene of this suffering family, their tears were simultaneously mixed with smiles of joy and hope as they recounted the moments that had sustained them along their journey, such as the times Mateo smiled at the sound of his mother’s voice and looked around to find her, or those in which he was finally rocked to sleep after feeling his parents by his side.

“He was so little when he was born. He measured 11 inches and weighed 1 lb. 7 oz. Now he weighs 8 lb. 1 oz.,” Ricardo said with a grateful smile. “If he passes the oxygen test next week, he’ll go to Children’s Hospital to have a surgery to remove two hernias, and hopefully he’ll get to come home soon after that.”

Maria and Ricardo Luna Ramos spend time with their son Mateo, who was born at just 26 weeks. With the family’s prayers, Mateo continues to get stronger. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

“Trusting in God has sustained us in these moments. My husband and I have talked about all of this, and our prayer has always been, ‘Lord, help us.’ And there has always been a light to keep us going,” said Maria, who with her husband and children is a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Aurora.

Everything began during a routine ultrasound Nov. 15, when the doctor told the couple something was wrong: The baby had not grown since the previous month. The doctor then asked Maria to be admitted in order to monitor her health and the baby’s.

“They said that it was because my placenta wasn’t sending enough oxygen to the baby,” Maria recalled.

The doctors had her count the times Mateo moved every hour, but one night, Maria knew something was wrong.

“I felt he was losing strength, he wasn’t moving as much, so I told my husband and the doctor I was scared,” Maria said. “That night my husband and I had a conversation and I told him, ‘My husband, we have to put ourselves in God’s hands. Our faith is being tested by God, but we will get through this.”

Maria had to give birth the following afternoon, on Nov. 18. It was the only chance of saving Mateo’s life.

“I entrusted my son to our Mother Mary that day, and I told her, ‘Mother Mary, my son can no longer be in my womb, but you can receive him in yours. Take care of him and protect him for me,” she said.

The following day, Ricardo and Maria received the sad news that Mateo’s lungs were bleeding. The doctors said they would try to do everything they could, but that he wasn’t doing well. One of the doctors and a nurse recommended that they call someone to baptize their child, if they were Catholic or Christian.

One of the nurses, who was also Catholic, even offered to help them contact a priest.

“We need to baptize him. He and we all need God and the Holy Spirit, and we can’t let anything happen to him without him being baptized,” Maria told her husband.

On that same day, Father Mauricio Bermudez from St. Michael’s Parish baptized Mateo.

The following months weren’t easy, as one day Ricardo and Maria would see their child improve and the next day worsen. Mateo was healthy except for his lungs. He was hooked up to an endotracheal tube to help him breathe and spent over two months in an incubator.

Besides the struggle of seeing their child fight for his life, the couple has  had to find creative ways to balance work, family and other responsibilities.

After work, Ricardo usually goes home to shower, eat dinner and see his wife and kids, and then heads over to the hospital, where he spends the evening, puts Mateo to sleep and leaves before midnight.

Maria takes the children to school in the morning and then heads straight to the hospital to be with Mateo. Later in the afternoon, she goes back home to cook for the family before they arrive from school or work and then takes care of her older children.

On the weekends, they go as a family to spend time in the hospital with Mateo, although his older siblings are not allowed to see him due to the age restriction at the NICU.

Ricardo Luna feeds his son Mateo while visiting him in the neonatal intensive care unit at University of Colorado-Anschutz Hospital March 17. Despite the challenges, Mateo’s family is grateful for the gift of his life. (Photo by Aaron Lambert)

Among the many ways this unexpected event has made the Luna family reflect, they feel as though the topic of abortion has taken on a different color.

“We went to Mass at St. Pius X Parish one Sunday and the priest invited all of us to go pray outside an abortion clinic,” Maria recounted.

“Later that day, looking at my son, I thought: ‘How is it possible that people can believe this human being doesn’t feel, only because he’s so little? Of course he feels! How can a mother allow someone to do that to their child? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

“I saw all the opposite: My child looked for me and smiled when I talked to him. He was so little and yet he was looking for my husband and me. He started doing that after he stopped being sedated, a month and a half after he was born.

“I saw that his size did not diminish his strong desire to live, and I think all babies in the womb have that same desire to live. If God is sending them, they are here for something good.”

Pedro and Maria Ramos, Maria’s brother and sister-in-law and also parishioners at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, became Mateo’s godparents for being the only family members present at the time Father Bermudez arrived to baptize the baby.

“He’s a miracle. Things like these increase our faith because we realize that, for God, nothing is impossible. When we saw him so little, we said, ‘Lord, only you know why he came into this world so little, but you also have the power to sustain him.’ And look at him, there he is,” Pedro said with a smile as he pointed to Mateo opening his little eyes for a photoshoot.

“It is an honor for me to be his godmother. He is truly a miracle. We must never lose our faith in God because he can truly act in our lives,” Pedro’s wife, Maria, added.

Beyond all their difficulties, Ricardo assured that he and his wife will love Mateo the same, even if he were to develop any type of defect from his premature birth.

“I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad child for a parent,” Maria concluded. “We have learned from this experience to live day by day, always giving thanks to God, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. All we can do is strive to be better Christians, better spouses, and a better family.”

COMING UP: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.