The gifts of being a priest with a disability

14 Comments

 

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.

Fr Justin Glyn SJ (Credit: Tim Kroenert)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 through our powerlessness so all can live in him.

This is, of course, not unique to priesthood. It is a part of the Christian calling more generally, and arguably goes beyond even this. The doctor, the lawyer, the teacher: all are called to put their gifts at the service of the whole, while aware of the weakness that needs to be supplemented by others.

 

"Those of us who experience disability know that we are limited. These limits are not hindrances to be overcome but part of the very fabric of our being. Our limitation is, however, only different in kind and degree to the limitations experienced by everyone."

 

We cannot lean on the crutches of ability on which those without an obvious disability might be tempted to rest. Indeed, the siren song of the prosperity gospel is to claim that you too — with enough effort and self-improvement — have perfection (of mind or body) within your grasp. You have only to 'have a go to get a go' and the world will be your oyster. Society need make no place for the useless eaters who have not bothered to realise their own gifts.

As anyone looking through the eyes of empathy knows, however, succumbing to the sirens leads to the rocks of desolation as one either founders on the social realities of exclusion (it doesn't matter how many goes one has when there are five jobseekers to every vacancy) or discovers that too much is never enough to meet the ever shifting expectations of a society in which the gulf between rich and poor widens daily.

No — those of us who experience disability know that we are limited. These limits are not hindrances to be overcome but part of the very fabric of our being. I have been reminded of that often enough — whether by the actions of people, such as physical bullying, or just by inability to do things which others take for granted.

Our limitation is, however, only different in kind and degree to the limitations experienced by everyone. We are all born weak and incapacitated and, if we live long enough, will die that way. A theology and religious praxis which fails to take this fundamental fact of humanity into account sells both the individual reality of life and the Incarnation which we believe sanctifies it, short. It is this gift of awareness of limitation and dependence on others which people with disability, especially priests, can bring to the world around us.

 

 

Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law. This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in Sandpiper, the Catholic Newspaper of the Sandhurst Diocese.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, disability

 

 

submit a comment

Existing comments

How refreshing - and inspiring - to see disability addressed in the context of faith. Thank you, Justin.
John RD | 18 October 2019


Thanks for being so candid, Justin. Your writing reveals much about your diverse abilities and your gaze is finely tuned to the nuances of priestly life. The Incarnation has God entering our lives in a position of profound vulnerability. A model for us to follow. One of the great joys of my life is a 10 year old granddaughter, living with cerebral palsy, whose vibrancy and loving nature reveal to me what I can aspire to.
Pam | 18 October 2019


My twin brother, now deceased, suffered from cerebral palsy and exemplified the joy in being disabled, as much as the frustration of trying to achieve everything I did. His faith rested firmly in who he was. I learned a lot from him. Thank you for your contributions to Eureka Street as well.
Jim Slingsby | 19 October 2019


What a great topic! Congratulations to whoever asked Justin to write on it. Even bigger congratulations to Justin for his excellent article. .It generated so many other ancillary topics that I would love to hear/read Justin's views on. For example The value of the Original Sin myth as an explanation for the propensity of all human beings towards doing bad things. Or: How well did the Revised Code of Canon Law 1983 meet the aspirations of John XXIII? Could the Roman Catholic Church's requirement for its clerics to be celibate be a reason for the hierarchy's emphasis on matters of sex/chastity more than on charity? Jesus seems to have had a welcoming attitude to public sinners. Less time for those legal eagles, the scribes & the Pharisees.
Uncle Pat | 21 October 2019


Disability it seems to me, Justine, has always had two faces, the countenance of those who have always been disabled from the day they were born and that of those who have acquired disability as fully developed adults. There is so much beauty and acceptance without rancour in the former while in the latter there is often (understandably), but not always, resentment, disappointment, rancour, loss of hope and ambition and sometimes misery of various dimensions. Perhaps the sophistication that adulthood and experience bring destroys the trusting innocence and beauty of childhood. Perhaps the disability that comes with birth protects (or some might say, excludes) the child from the sophistication of the world and preserves the beauty and innocence that God has created in all of his children. It is such a shame that our world ruins that beauty and innocence in so many through the pursuit of personal appearance and acquisition of trinkets when indeed beauty and innocence bears no relationship whatever to appearances. As Hamlet suggested contrary to his advisor Polonius' opinion "clothes do not maketh the man".
john frawley | 21 October 2019


What a man! You have made my day.
Michael Furtado | 21 October 2019


Interestingly, my reaction was not about disability, but that this man was telling me how to be a Christian. Words like "mission" and "evangelization" have negative connotations for me. Even endless references to Jesus without references to day-to-day life in this century do not help me, yet that is all I hear from the pulpit I sit beneath. Thank you, Fr Justin Glyn
Sheelah Egan | 21 October 2019


Thanks Justin. Your article reminded me of a wonderful conversation Richard Fidler had with Ron McCallum I recently listened to. Ron speaks in the same vein as you write.
Steve Sinn | 21 October 2019


Thank you Justin for your wonder-filled article. No doubt Driverless cars will introduce your community to driving experiences such as yours! You have articulated beautifully how gifted and differently-abled you are in some areas and vulnerable in others ... as we all are. Bless you and thank you again for your insights.
Mary Tehan | 21 October 2019


An important reminder to accept and embrace my own humanity and limitations. Difficult to do in a society driven by image and success, but I guess you're saying that that reality makes it all the more important, and perhaps that its the antidote. Thanks Justin, we are lucky to have you, as a companion but also as a prophet - who sees things that others don't. Nga mihi nui kia koe, e te rangatira.
Daniel Kleinsman | 22 October 2019


Justin it is so good to read your article especially re a priest’s call is to enter into the hurts and joys of others from a position of weakness. It was a privilege to work with you in JRS in 2015 at St Canice’s Elizabeth Bay. You shared so many of your gifts , your disability not being an issue.
Margaret Guy | 23 October 2019


A fine piece of writing with wonderful 'insight'. Thank you
Faye Lawrence | 26 October 2019


Justin, this is such an extraordinary insight into the love Christ offers for all, in its purest form. Christs' love of those afflicted with a less than ideal functional living is found in its greatest clarity. This love has enabled you to reflect without undue focus on yourself, making the gift you have to give us all even more profound. Thank you.
Greg Baynie | 27 October 2019


Justin, you are on my list, with Andy, as one of the few clerics of any denomination who should be allowed to preach, rather than read from a contemporary version of the Elizabethan Book of Homilies. You may have limited ocular vision but you can see in the way which is most important. A Thousand Times Bravo!
Edward Fido | 10 November 2019


x

Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up