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The Christophers: The Most Powerful Human Being

Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.,

The Christophers’ Board of Directors


In his essay “Power of the Powerless: a Brother’s Lesson,” published in the Wall Street Journal in 1985, Christopher de Vinck writes, “For me, to have been brought up in a house where a tragedy was turned into joy explains to a great degree why I am the type of husband and father and writer and teacher that I have become.”

In his essay, which was later adapted into a book of the same name, with an Afterword by Fred Rogers, de Vinck recounts how, when his mother was pregnant with his brother Oliver, she was exposed to a gas leak in their home. Although they did not realize it at the time, this had a terrible effect on Oliver in the womb, and he was eventually born with severe impairments.

The doctors said Oliver wouldn’t live past seven or eight years, but he lived for 32 years. In that time, Christopher witnessed his parents care for Oliver, and he himself cared for Oliver, often taking on the task of feeding his brother. This very act of caring for a person with severe disabilities made Christopher a better person. Oliver’s presence in his life even helped Christopher choose the right woman to marry. He tells of bringing a young woman to their home and inviting her to meet Oliver, having told her all about him. Her reply was, “No,” she did not want to meet him. Soon after that incident, he met another young woman named Rosemary, or Roe, and eventually brought her home to meet his family.

While Roe was visiting, Christopher prepared to feed Oliver. He writes, “I sheepishly asked Roe if she’d like to come upstairs and see Oliver. ‘Sure’, she said and up the stairs we went. I sat at Oliver’s bedside as Roe stood and watched over my shoulder. I gave him the first spoonful, the second… ‘Can I do that?’ she asked, with ease and freedom and compassion. So I gave her the bowl and she fed Oliver, one spoonful at a time. The power of the powerless. Which girl would you marry? I married Roe, and I never regretted. Today Roe and I have three children.”

The Christophers share this story on occasion because it remains one of the most poignant witnesses to the value of human life at all stages and in all forms. Christopher’s witness is so powerful that I’d like to end this column with the words he chose to end his 1985 tribute to his brother, which seems to me to be one of the most truthful and yet mysterious statements I have ever encountered. May it change our hearts.

“When I was a child I was afraid of the dark and shared a room with my younger brother. Our room was separated from Oliver’s by a single wall. Five inches of wood and plaster divided us from each other during the night. We inhaled the same night air, listened to the same wind. Slowly, without our knowledge, Oliver created a certain power around us which changed all of our lives. I cannot explain Oliver’s influence fully, except to say that the powerless in the world do hold great power, and sometimes the weak do confound the mighty. Even now, five years after his death from pneumonia on March 12, 1980, Oliver still remains the most helpless human being I ever met. The weakest human being I ever met, and yet, he was the most powerful human being I ever met.”


For a free copy of The Christophers’ BECOME LIKE CHILDREN TO ENTER HEAVEN, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail:

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