Blind to our blindness

Today is a research day so I am trying to make progress on my seminar paper. It seemed that even the liturgy today was giving me a little ‘kick’ to get motivated. Listening to the readings at Mass today and found myself thinking about my paper.

 “On the night of Pentecost, after I had buried the dead, I, Tobit, went into my courtyard to sleep next to the courtyard wall.  My face was uncovered because of the heat.
I did not know there were birds perched on the wall above me, till their warm droppings settled in my eyes, causing cataracts. I went to see some doctors for a cure, but the more they anointed my eyes with various salves, the worse the cataracts became, until I could see no more. For four years I was deprived of eyesight, and all my kinsmen were grieved at my condition. Ahiqar, however, took care of me for two years, until he left for Elymais.” (Book of Tobit 2:9-14).

How is this connected ? Well, my topic for the seminar paper is actually based on Canon 930.
Canon 930 §1 A priest who is ill or elderly, if he is unable to stand, may celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice sitting but otherwise observing the liturgical laws; he may not, however, do so in public except by permission of the local Ordinary.
§2 A priest who is blind or suffering from some other infirmity, may lawfully celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice by using the text of any approved Mass, with the assistance, if need be, of another priest or deacon or even a properly instructed lay person. As you can see, the canon deals with provisions made for priests who are ill and elderly regarding postures during the celebration of the Eucharist. The second part of the canon deals with cases of priests who are blind or suffer from other infirmity which necessitates either using alternative approved texts for Mass and/ or assistance from another person. In light of the phrase, ‘other infirmity’, I am hoping to explore the celebration of liturgy by deaf and mute clergy and the various provisions which are made and can be made for the celebration of the Eucharist by priests with various health restrictions.
Ok, the liturgical geek in me is trying to combine two great loves: liturgy and canon law. Here are some of the questions which I am asking myself at the moment. What liturgical texts are used by visually impaired priests? Is there access to the liturgical texts of the Roman Missal and the Lectionary in Braille form? Are they approved for national liturgies and liturgical use or just ‘adaptable’? Are there indications or instructions available from the Diocesan Liturgical Office or the local bishop regarding the celebration of the liturgy by clergy who are deaf, blind, mute, wheelchair bound? Or does this happen case by case? Is it the praxis of each diocese to have the permission to sit during Mass on the pagella which the priest receives from the Diocese along with their faculties? 

Despite working in various liturgical environments in different countries, I have to be honest and say that I haven’t really thought about preparation of liturgy for those who have various disabilities. My first real experience of including those with disabilities in liturgy was during the International Eucharistic Congress last June. It was the first time that an IEC Deaf Track had been offered to Deaf Pilgrims attending the IEC.  There were 150 Deaf people from different parts of the world, where eight different sign languages interpreters were used within the Deaf community. About two weeks previous to that, I had seen Mass being signed for the first time. You can read more about the Deaf Track IEC experience here.

Whilst I was in Poland, I looked after an elderly Ukrainian priest who at the spritely age of 80 took on the ministry of chaplain to the Deaf Community in Lublin, Poland. Did I mention, he didn’t know sign language!? But he learned and became fluent very quickly! He used to try and teach me some words every evening during the rituals of insulin, blood pressure etc. It was fascinating! Surfing the internet today I was amazed to read some of the stories and testimonies of some priests who have been ordained and who are deaf, blind or both. You might want to read the stories of  Fr. Cyril Axelrod, a Redemptorist priest here, Fr. Matthew Hysell, Canada’s first deaf priest here or Fr. Tim Devine, a blind priest here or the ordination of an Assumptionist priest Fr. Pierre Pham Van Duong here.

I realise that I take so much for granted, even just having the Bible and the liturgical texts at my disposal so conveniently in a way that I can read them. Just think about this! The manufacturing of Braille books cannot be conducted on a mass scale. A single copy of the Braille version of the Bible cost the Xavier Society an astonishing $1,400. Given the bulky size of a single sheet of Braille, the Bible had to be broken up into 45 volumes. Most of the priests who are blind have had to make their own sacramentary by running the text through a Braille printer. They go through seminary studies thanks to a computer that has vocal recognition and to Biblical and liturgical texts in Braille. I am a self-confessed bookworm but rarely do I stop and think or to thank God that I can see and read. I love music but how often do I thank the Creator for the sounds and words and instruments. Pardon the pun, but doing this research has given me new insight to so many things, including the great progress which is being made in technology. Our senses are blessings which open us to the magnitude of the created word and sound.

Anna and the Blind Tobit
Painting by Rembrant
But going back to the readings for today. Tobit became blind because it seems he was sitting on the ground, gazing up at the sky as birds were flying by. Many people say that bird droppings are good luck but not for our friend Tobit. It happened to land in his eyes! (Honest, I'm not making this up, it's in the Bible!) Ok, Mr. Tobit! You probably weren’t the most intelligent person to be sitting there in the first place but hey, we all make mistakes and God uses them to write the course of history. The Book of Tobit is a short book. Even St. Jerome tells us that translating it into Latin cost him only “the labour of one day.” However it has much to teach us. In the first part of the reading, Tobit’s sight is taken from him. In the second part, he goes to have an interesting ‘discussion/argument’ with his wife, accusing here of being of stealing a goat (again I am not making this up!). Let's say that maybe some marriage counselling is on the cards for Tobit and Anna.

In a way we are all like Tobit, temporarily blind to the marvels of God. Because of original sin, we can be blind to goodness, both within ourselves, others and around us. Last Thursday, the liturgy gave us the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man. We too can be so like Bartimaeus, just sitting on the road, no longer moving toward goodness and fulfilment, but stuck in sin and death. Whilst Tobit wished for death, Bartimaeus wished for life. In the stories of the priests above, their disability was not an obstacle but a springboard for them to be witnesses to the fact that with God all things are possible.

Too often, we humans are prone to be blind to our blindness. We are blind and wear blinkers in our judgement of others. Because of the biases which colour our lives, we have distorted images of others, both as individuals and as groups or communities. More than often it is a fear of being healed, that we might have to make drastic changes in our life. God may even ask us to have our vision restored so that we can enter into God’s great vision. He does this out of love and in truth for it is the truth which sets us free. As Pope Emeritus Benedict reminds us: "Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like 'a clanging cymbal' (I Cor 13: 1)."