For Scott and Lynn Cassidy, Pope Francis’ historic visit to America evoked memories of a blessed meeting they believe miraculously healed their baby’s heart defect.
Lynn Cassidy was a 48-year-old mother of two teens when her daughter, Ave Cassidy, was born with Down syndrome and two holes in her heart that doctors believed could require surgery to close.
“Because of the higher likelihood that an older woman would have a child with Down syndrome, we knew heart issues were possible,” she says. “But it doesn’t make it any easier when a doctor tells you she has a hole in her heart.”
On Easter of 2014, the family of devout Catholics traveled from their home in the Valley to Rome to witness the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII. At the time, Ave was asymptomatic and cleared by her doctor to travel.
“The canonization was really the impetus for the trip,” Lynn says. “I wanted to show my kids the tradition of the Catholic faith that is over 2,000 years old.”
About 45,000 people crowded St. Peter Square on the last Sunday in April 2014. Rain poured down on the family as they huddled together near a metal fence, barricading the street where the pope would pass by.
For three hours the family waited, hoping just to catch a glimpse of the pope in his famous “pope-mobile.”
When the motorcade turned into the square, Scott held Ave above his head, catching the eye of one of the pope's personal secret service agents, Gianni.
The motorcade stopped and Gianni reached out and took Ave in his arms, presenting the girl to the Pontiff.
Blessing the child, the pope placed his hand over Ave’s heart and kissed her forehead.
“How old is she?” Gianni asked as he passed back the child to Scott. “What’s her name?”
Scott answered the questions and told the pope and Gianni that the girl had two holes in her heart.
“It was very surreal. You are standing there, you know you’re in St. Peter’s Square, and you know he’s the pope. And you know he’s the closest you will get to seeing a saint — he’s a saintly man and certainly a man of God,” Lynn says. “It was just a very humbling experience and very emotional.”
Weeks later, when the family returned home to Phoenix, they went for a checkup at Ave's cardiologist. When the doctor presented the latest test results, he appeared stunned.
One of the holes in Ave’s heart had closed completely; the other had diminished to half of its size.
“Our first thought was God works in mysterious ways,” says Lynn. “There was perhaps something miraculous that happened that day.”
Children with Down Syndrome are at a much higher risk for congenital heart disease — nearly 50 percent of children with the genetic disorder suffer from heart disease or defects, according to the National Association for Childhood Development.
Small holes, which can limit blood flow, may present no problems and close on their own as the child ages. Larger holes do not close naturally and cause extra strain on the heart, which typically has to be fixed through surgery.
“Many holes will get smaller on their own and will go away on their own,” Dr. Robert Beekman, a chair of a group within the American College of Cardiology that focuses on heart defects, tells New Times. “Why it happens, I have no idea. But who am I to question that faith doesn’t play a part?”
The Cassidy family believes it wasn’t just a coincidence of timing that Ave was healed.
“I believe through the pope — the servant of God — that God has healed the holes in her heart,” Lynn says.
Now at 20 months old, Ave is an active, healthy, and playful baby. When Pope Francis arrived in America this year, Cassidy posted on her Facebook page that Ave’s “friend” was visiting. Suddenly, everybody wanted to hear about Ave's encounter with the pontiff.
“It’s amazing how when the pope comes to America, which never happens, people want to know the story,” she says.
The spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics toured New York and Washington, where he became the first pope to ever speak before Congress in an unprecedented address about climate change, compassion for immigrants, and a collective effort toward peace. His visit has generated enormous interest.
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“We feel this special connection to the pope now and all it does is make us love our faith more and want to share it,” Lynn says. “This has an embolden my resolve that God wants to speak about it . . . This baby is a beacon for people, I think. A beacon of hope and of love.”