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The gifts of being a priest with a disability

  • 17 October 2019


Recently, I was honoured to be asked to write an article on life as a priest with a disability for the Catholic Diocese of Sandhurst's Sandpiper magazine. I found it strangely difficult for reasons I will try to explain.

I was born with nystagmus (eyes which cannot focus), short-sight and a squint (partially repaired) — mostly the result of a quirk of brain development which led to a lump of useless tissue pressing on my optic nerve. This also seems to have resulted in epilepsy (controlled by medication).

This has had two results. One is that I am legally blind — the world is a fuzzy blur without definition. The other is that I have never known anything different and so have nothing to compare it with. My world has always been blurry with most of my information about it coming from what I hear.

What does it mean to be a priest with a disability? I don't really know since I don't know what it is to be a priest without one! The vision I have is improved by a pair of telescopes and by text enlargement software — but it is very much a secondary sense. This, however, is the way I was designed — with both its plusses (good memory, good language and musical ability and other gifts) and its minuses (you will be amazed at how unenthusiastic my community is about letting me drive!).

Despite all that, I think that in some ways to be a priest with a disability is to be at a strange advantage. We tend to think about priesthood as a gift and a calling — and so it is. It is not, however, about merit, of saying 'I am better than you / uniquely gifted'. A merit-based attitude has led to a ghastly sense of entitlement and power leading, at its worst, to the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Instead, the priesthood is a call to enter the hurts and joys of other people's lives from a position of weakness, not strength. We share the sacraments as equals. Those of us with a disability are well aware of our weakness, our limits. We know that the call to salvation in Christ is not a call to perfection as an individual. Instead, it is a call to meet other people's vulnerability with our own, to empower others by finding strength in togetherness and letting the wounded Christ shine