“They had been discussing among themselves . . . who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, ‘If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’
“Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.’”
While researching my master’s thesis, about adoption as an expression of authentic Christian parenthood, I read a fascinating book entitled When Children Were People: The birth of childhood in early Christianity (Bakke).  According to Dr. Bakke, first century Christians attracted its first Roman converts – despite its official status as a persecuted and despised Jewish sect among the Roman elite – because of their charitable works among the poor of Roman society. In particular, they were renowned for their habit of rescuing and raising in their own households infants that had been discarded by their Roman parents (the Roman practice of exposito permitted parents to dispose of newborn children up to eight days of age).
Typically, these children were not legally adopted. In Roman society, the institution of adoption was reserved to the nobility, practiced by wealthy families without a legal heir. Rich old men legally assumed into their own families young men of good character but dismal prospects, to prevent the estate from being splintered. For the early Christians, the treasure they were saving was of the eternal variety. Children subjected to exposito were commonly exploited in sex trades or household slavery, unless they died from exposure.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the Lord simultaneously elevate the hidden life of service, and attribute greatness to those who reach out to the most powerless and vulnerable of any society: its children. For any parent, this is good news. There is nothing quite like the vicissitudes of Mommyhood to make a person painfully aware of each and every personal flaw.
But just as the early Christians raked in heavenly treasure by reaching out to children who would have otherwise been exploited or killed, today’s Christians have a unique opportunity to intervene in the lives of children who are forcibly removed from their homes and placed in foster care. Many of these children face extremely dismal prospects unless someone, somewhere gives them a chance. (If you are interested in exploring foster care or foster-adoption of a child whose parents’ rights have already been terminated, contact Catholic Social Services or the Dave Thomas Foundation.)
If you do consider becoming a foster parent or foster-adoptive parent, however, it’s important to go into it with realistic expectations. Foster and adoptive parenting is a calling that requires careful planning and discernment.
- Choose your agency carefully. Attend several information nights at agencies in your area. Ask lots of questions about the programs and trainings available, to see where you feel most comfortable.
- To prepare yourself adequately, make the most of every learning opportunity that comes your way. Talk to other foster parents. Haunt foster care websites, and read about issues such as childhood trauma, signs of abuse and neglect, learning disorders, and attachment and bonding, in case the child who enters under your roof needs specialized care.
- Proceed cautiously if you have other children in your home. Avoid giving a new foster child immediate, unlimited access to the children already in your home. Do not let them play together unsupervised, or to sleep in the same room as your children until you are absolutely certain it is safe to do so.
- Pray for extraordinary sensitivity, and for healing in the lives of the children who come under your roof. Most of these children suffer deep and lasting wounds, which may take a lifetime to heal. Your task is not to “fix” them, but walk beside them as they begin the journey toward healing.
The most important key to successful foster parenting: Cultivate the habit of recognizing in even the most RADish, prickly-pear tendencies a glimpse of “Jesus in distressing disguise,” as Blessed Mother Teresa admonished us. Don’t be afraid, yet don’t be naive: the life you change may be your own.