When you Google “Cecilia Paul,” you get the Simon & Garfunkel song “Cecilia,” and it’s breaking my heart because Cecilia Paul was a life that was a glorious song of a different sort. The Cecilia I’m thinking of was a woman who her son Thomas believes was a saint.
Thomas was adopted as a newborn, along with his brother, Drew, who was a year older, by Cecilia Paul and her husband. Although they would make contact with their biological parents — who were “in some bad stuff” — Cecilia was always his mother as far as he was concerned, as he explained it to lawyer Andrea Picciotti-Bayer for an amicus brief filed by the Catholic Association, in Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia. “I think that whoever raised you is your parent,” says Thomas, now in his early 30s with children of his own.
Cecilia Paul welcomed more than 130 foster children into her home over 40 years, adopting six. In 2015, the city honored her with an “Outstanding Foster Parent of the Year” award. At the time, the head of the city’s department of health and human services emphasized the “desperate need right now for additional foster homes.” “We need more families,” she pleaded. “I can tell you we have a desperate need right now for additional foster homes.” A former nurse in a children’s hospital, Paul had explained that “caring for children in need” was her “life’s work.”
Mrs. Paul died this past month, and it seems only right to pause to pay tribute to her during a week when so many eyes are on midterm elections and people are already, two years out, getting passionately or despairingly involved in the upcoming presidential-election year. Ours is a culture of perpetual campaigns. Only the most important one isn’t the one that makes headlines. It’s the one people like Cecilia Paul are focused on. It’s a campaign of love. They offer their hearts for stretching because they know there are children in need, more than they could ever care for. But they try for all they can.
Her fostering was made possible by Catholic Social Services (CSS), which made the connection between the need and what she could offer. But in the final months of her life, that wasn’t happening anymore. She died a plaintiff in a case that is a priority for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s this year. In the lawsuit, she was asking Philadelphia to reconsider its decision to stop working with CSS. As she explained:
The city won’t let me care for any more foster children because I work with an agency that shares my faith. The city’s actions have left my home empty, and I have felt lost without being able to continue my life’s work.
This, despite, the city’s continuing need for foster parents.
We’re living at a time of some deep disagreements, as is obvious when we focus on so much that is political. People are confused about some things that only a few years ago were largely givens, such as whether a boy is a boy or a girl is a girl. It was not that long ago that Democrats running for major political office were not for same-sex marriage. And yet, culturally, that seems eons ago. It’s worth taking a deep breath and considering that tolerance includes appreciating that there is still room in our civic life, and for the sake of the common good — most especially for the sake of children in need — for traditional ideas about life and death and marriage and men and women, ideas that have helped us along the way until now.
When it comes to foster-care, we have too many orphans to be considering places like Catholic Social Services — an arm of the Catholic Church in Philadelphia — anything less than a needed solution to the problem, a gateway to love for children, to homes for children, a connection to people like the late Cecilia Paul. As became clear earlier this year when Walter Olson hosted an event on adoption, we need more rather than fewer people involved in foster care and adoption.
Growing up, Thomas Paul and his brother Drew saw many foster-care children go in and out of his home. As foster parents know, such kids often have a lot of trauma from abuse — including addiction — or abandonment. That, of course, was hard. “I have seen so much in my life that is sad,” Thomas says. But “joy overcomes all of the pain in my life.”
And Catholic Social Services was a conscious part of his home life growing up. They would send presents at Christmas, for example, which made him feel special. Without glossing over the real struggles that foster and adoptive families experience, we can recognize that the difference between being an orphan stuck in a system and knowing you’re loved is everything. It makes all the difference in life. In his testimony for the amicus brief, Thomas explained that the added CSS love helped him keep his mind off “any of the hard times” and that their visits and assessments would work to “get kids out of their darkness.”
Thomas is a general contractor and a father of two young children. He gives thanks to Cecilia, who encouraged hard work and perseverance: “No matter how hard life comes at you, keep going, keep your head up.” Cecilia Paul’s heart helped him not become overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment. His mother taught him that “love is everything.”
“I want other kids to have the opportunity that I did,” Thomas told Picciotti-Bayer. “If they get shattered by situations that are not their fault, they should still have the chance to dream.”
In November, Catholics traditionally celebrate All Saints and All Souls. It’s also National Adoption Month. Cecilia Paul seems an apt patron saint for letting no one feel abandoned. It’s a challenge that the witness of our life might just help us rise to. If, in between gawking at the political show, we can think about her and the need for love.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.