I first met J. D. Flynn when he was working in the chancery in Lincoln, Neb. Through the miracle (sometimes! truly!) of Facebook, I quickly got to know his beautiful family, who include two little adopted treasures, both of whom were born with Down syndrome. The Flynns have another child now too, but let him tell you about that. A canon lawyer, J.D. is editor-in-chief of the Denver-based Catholic News Agency, where he directs a news team that, among other things, has a podcast he’d very much like you to check out. For now, here are some insights from him on adoption and parenthood. — Kathryn Jean Lopez
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Tell us about adoption. What has been your experience?
J. D. Flynn: My wife Kate and I have three children, and two of them are adopted. Max is seven and Pia is six. Both were born in Colorado, where we live, and we adopted each of them as newborns. And both of them have Down syndrome. Our biological son, Daniel Vanier, is almost two, and is a delight.
Adoption has been among the great joys of our lives. It was never the plan that we would adopt children, but after several difficult years of infertility, disappointment, and discouragement, we began to discern that perhaps adoption was the path for our family.
We wanted to be sure that we were embracing adoption for what it was: that we understood it as a unique way to build a family, with its own unique challenges, and not as something we would ever perceive as somehow secondary to having biological children. In short, we wanted to be able to embrace adopted children with joy, and without regret, and that meant that we took time to mourn some of our hopes, and to accept that biological children would probably not be in our future.
Of course, much to our surprise, several years after adopting the big kids, Kate discovered she was pregnant!
The most important aspect of our experience with adoption has been the witness of our children’s birth parents. We met and got to know the biological parents of each of our children. They made unfathomably difficult choices when they made adoption plans for their children. Few of us can imagine loving a child so much that, because of difficult circumstances, you’re willing to make the courageous choice they did. We pray often that we can love our children with the selflessness of their birth parents. They’re models of love.
Lopez: Why did you and Kate adopt two children with Down syndrome? Did you think you could handle it?
Flynn: We tried to be open to adopting children in the same way that we’ve tried to be open to life. We tried to just make ourselves available, and to trust that God would do the choosing for us. We didn’t set out to adopt children with Down syndrome. Max’s birth mother chose us to adopt her son after a lot of prayer and consideration. We were humbled. But we didn’t know anything about Down syndrome, and we had a lot to learn.
Less than a year after Max was born, we got a call from our adoption agency. They said a baby girl with Down syndrome would be born in just three days. Her biological parents were hoping to find a devoutly Catholic couple who knew something about Down syndrome. The agency asked us if we knew anyone. We laughed. We said yes to her on the spot. We didn’t even hesitate. Pia was born three days later, and we loved her from the start. But the plan was all God’s.
Lopez: What have been the greatest challenges? The biggest joys?
Flynn: Children with Down syndrome are different from other children in significant ways. I don’t know that parenting them is more difficult, but the challenges are different. Pia has had cancer twice, and that means she’s spent almost a full year living in hospitals. Max has a lot of difficult sensory issues. But they’re amazing kids, and they have a lot in common with typical kids — they have the ordinary range of human emotions, the same social desires, the same desire to be loved, to be secure, to learn, to play. And they know every single word of Frozen. They’ll perform the whole movie for you as a duet, any time.
We have learned a lot about weakness and love from them. We’ve learned to accept our own weaknesses. And we’ve learned from them how to ask for help without shame. Most especially, we’ve learned that, as a father, God rejoices when we turn to him in weakness and ask for his help. That’s been a great joy.
It’s also been a great grace to be surrounded by a community, including our own son, who love and accept the kids just as they are — their cousins and the children of our friends know intuitively how to adapt games so our kids can play, and they so often model a very beautiful kind of patience.
Finally, it has been a great joy to work with two different Catholic schools to build inclusive special-education programs. Our kids go to our parish school, they spend the day in the regular classroom, learning the same things as their peers. It takes a lot of work from school and home to make that happen, and we’ve been grateful to have had school communities willing to partner with us. It’s also a costly endeavor –we’re always fundraising for inclusive special education!
Lopez: How did you go about adoption, practically speaking? For couples thinking of adoption, what would you recommend? What do you wish you had known?
Flynn: We went through a secular nonprofit adoption agency in Colorado, where we live. The agency staff didn’t agree with all our perspectives, but we were blessed because they supported us and our choices, and they respected us. It was important to find the right fit — we went to several agencies before we found one that seemed like a good partner for our family. I wish we had known that the costs associated with adoption generally go to fund important things, like psychological and practical support for birth parents.
I also wish we’d known how many people were willing to help us with those costs — it took us a while to be willing to accept help — but that’s good practice for parenting, where you learn to take all the help you can get!
Lopez: Do Catholics talk enough about adoption? Do pro-lifers?
Flynn: I think Catholics and pro-lifers tend to talk often about adoption, but I wonder if we understand how difficult a choice adoption is for biological parents, and how much support they need in moments of crisis. No one should ever feel like they have no choice but adoption, and no one should feel that they won’t be supported if they choose to parent. We should celebrate when biological parents choose to parent, and we should be willing to support them for the long haul. But that’s hard.
Lopez: Do you think Catholics adequately consider the various modes of parenting and adoption?
Flynn: One thing I wish Catholics thought more about is foster care. Foster children need the love that people of faith can offer them. And if Catholic families saw foster parenting as a work of mercy, and took it up as an apostolate, we could transform the entire foster-care system in this country. Especially if we also worked at family reunification, and at helping parents do the work they need to do to be reunified. Catholic foster parenting could actually be the keystone to the kind of renewal in family life that could help families end cycles of poverty. The Institute for Family Studies has done so much work to show that stable family life is the key to getting out of poverty, and Catholics could make a big difference, through foster care, to help with that.
Lopez: Do any of us in journalism do as much as we should on foster care and adoption? Especially foster care? And on all the mental-health helps needed? Besides a personal challenge to both of us and our colleagues — what more can everyone do? (I know you’re a journalist now, but you’re also an advocate by virtue of what you believe and how you live your life! So your insights from your experience can help here!)
Flynn: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Paul VI said that, and of course it’s true. Journalists can tell the stories of adoptive parents, of biological parents who made adoption plans for their children, of foster parents and reunified families. Stories shed light on realities. But telling stories well means getting to understand complicated situations, and sometimes I think we need to be willing to delve into parts of the world outside our bubble. I wish that we Catholic journalists would, like Dorothy Day and other great Catholic journalists, be willing to get to know and love communities that are very different from the ones we come from, so that we can tell their stories honestly.
Lopez: Not being on the East Coast, do you feel at all removed from the March for Life and Roe anniversary?
Flynn: We marched in the local Denver March for Life, and we prayed for the marchers in D.C. and for an end to abortion. And we thought fondly of our friends gathered at the Dubliner after the March. So, we were there in spirit!
Lopez: Do you consider your timing moving from Church chancery work to journalism providential?
Flynn: Absolutely! I was invited to work at CNA after working in chanceries for more than a decade; by training I am a canon lawyer. I took the job for a new challenge, and because it would allow us to move closer to extended family. I didn’t realize how important it would be to have a canon lawyer working in Catholic journalism then — but once the summer of scandal began, I realized that our agency had the opportunity to do some unique and important journalism. And I’ve been very grateful for the incredible work of our whole team during these difficult months.
Lopez: What’s been the greatest challenge in your new role?
Flynn: I think that balancing our commitment to being professional and ethical journalists with our own love for the Church and our own personal feelings and experiences during this crisis is not always easy. I want to make sure that we believe that shedding light is always a way to invite the Lord into a problem. Because when we shed light, it is on those things that are in need of reform and renewal. But I have such a faithful and talented team, and support from really great bosses, and that helps make discernment about those things much easier.
Lopez: You’ve been abuzz about your new Catholic News Agency podcast. What unique value does the podcast add?
Flynn: Our podcast, CNA Newsroom, tries to tell good stories in a way that is engaging and approachable. I love coming to work every day because of the people. We have so much fun in our newsrooms, and such interesting conversations, and the idea of the podcast has been to invite people into those conversations. We’re still learning how to do that, but our podcast has had a great launch, and I’m proud of it. We have high production values, great interviews, and packages, and good conversations.
Lopez: Why is it important to mark the Roe v. Wade anniversary each year in January? Should we do it with a particular focus this year on healing and renewal of the family, between men and women, and in the Church? (All of those do blend together, after all, and difficulties in one area can exacerbate difficulties in all of them.)
Flynn: Abortion is our national shame. Abortion destroys the lives of children but also, in many cases, the love that created them. Abortion harms mothers and fathers. And legal protection for abortion will always be an intolerable and exploitive injustice. In the Church right now, we’re trying to eradicate exploitation and injustice. That’s what so many people in the Me Too movement have tried to do too. But no matter what else we’re working for, we have to work for the unborn, because if we don’t remember them, no one else will.
John Paul II said that the culture of death is a “war of the powerful against the weak.” That’s a war we’re fighting on a lot of fronts. Remembering to fight for the unborn, and their mothers, reminds us to fight for so many other vulnerable people who might also be be exploited. Ending abortion will do a great deal, I hope, to awaken a national consciousness toward protecting all the vulnerable. At least that’s what I pray for.