08 April 2014

Pope Francis meets with persons who are deaf and persons who are blind

On Saturday 29 March Pope Francis had a special audience with persons who are deaf and with persons who are blind. Some at the audience were both deaf and blind, including Fr Cyril Axelrod CSsR, the only deaf and blind priest in the world, a South African born of Jewish parents.

Here is the text of the News.va report, with my emphasis added.

Vatican City, 29 March 2014 (VIS) – “Witnesses to the Gospel for a culture of encounter” is the theme of the Day of Sharing organised by the Apostolic Movement of the Blind, with the participation of the Gualandi Mission for the Deaf (the Little Mission for the Deaf), as well as the Italian Union of the Blind and Partially-Sighted. These organisations were received in audience this morning by Pope Francis, who commented on the theme of the Day.

The first thing I observe is that this expression ends with the word 'encounter', but first this presupposes another encounter, the one with Christ. Indeed, to be witnesses of the Gospel, it is necessary to have encountered Him, Jesus. … Like the Samaritan woman. … A witness to the Gospel is someone who has encountered Jesus Christ, who knows him, or rather, who feels known by him: recognised, respected, loved, forgiven, and this encounter … fills him with a new joy, a new meaning for life. And this shines through, is communicated, is transmitted to others”.

I have mentioned the Samaritan woman because she offers a clear example of the type of person Jesus liked to meet, to make them his witnesses: marginalised, excluded, disdained people. The Samaritan woman was this type, inasmuch as she was a woman, and a Samaritan – the Samaritans were despised by the Jews. But let us think also of the many that Jesus wished to encounter, especially people affected by illness and disability, to cure them and to restore their full dignity to them. It is very important that precisely these people become witnesses to a new attitude, that we can call a culture of encounter. A typical example is the man blind from birth … marginalised in the name of a false idea that he had received a divine punishment. Jesus radically refuses this way of thinking – truly blasphemous! - and performs an act of God, giving him the gift of sight. But the important thing is that this man, as soon as this happens to him, becomes a witness to Jesus and His work, that is the work of God, of life, love and mercy. While the Pharisees, from their safe distance, judges both him and Jesus as 'sinners'; the cured blind man, with disarming simplicity, defends Jesus and in the at the end professes his faith in Him, and also shares his fate: Jesus is excluded, and he is excluded too. But in reality the man enters into a new community, based on faith in Jesus and on brotherly love”.

“Here we have the two opposing cultures. The culture of encounter and the culture of exclusion, of prejudice. The sick or disabled person, precisely because of his or her frailty and limits, may become a witness to this encounter: the encounter with Jesus, that opens us to life and faith, and to the encounter with others, with the community. Indeed, only those who recognise their own fragility and their own limits can build bonds of fraternity and unity, in the Church and in society”, concluded the Holy Father.

Fr Cyril Axelrod CSsR

When I was young the term 'deaf and dumb' was widely used. 'Deaf-mute' is a term still used by some, including this Vatican report which referred to the 'Little Mission for the Deaf Mute'. Indeed, that is the historical name of this congregation whose ministry is exclusively with the Deaf. But the words 'dumb' and mute' come from a misconception of hearing people that those who are deaf are not able to speak. Profoundly deaf people have the capability of speech but very often that is never brought to life because they cannot hear. But youngsters who are profoundly deaf can be taught how to speak.

The word 'dumb' has come to mean 'stupid' because profoundly deaf people were often seen to be such because they shared no common language even with their own family. Deafness isolates, much more so than any other physical disability.

Some persons without any severe disabilities speak of others as being 'differently-abled'. I've never liked that term because it's not true. Deaf people and blind people have the same wide range of abilities as everyone else. Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Andrea Bocelli are three singers who come to mind who have the disability of blindness. but that hasn't prevented them from having successful careers in music. 

Helen Keller, precisely because she was deaf and blind, had an enormous influence on others once she discovered her gifts through the patience of Anne Sullivan, her tutor.

Portrait by Josef Karl Stieler [Wikipedia]

And Beethoven had become totally deaf by the time he composed his revolutionary Ninth Symphony, the first symphony ever to include singers, with Schiller's Ode to Joy in the last movement. But he didn't hear that music with his ears, only with his mind and memory. Beethoven wasn't 'differently-abled'. He was a musical genius who acquired the disability of deafness as he grew older. This began when he was about 30. For the last ten of his 57 years he was almost totally deaf but continued to compose.

When I was a young priest I studied for a degree in musical education and spent some months as a practice-teacher in two public schools in New York State. The students I had in First Year High School were almost impossible to keep in check. But when I was able to get across to them, despite the noise level, that Beethoven had no hearing when he wrote The Ninth they quietened down and listened, quite awe-struck, to the music. The concluding words of Pope Francis, in a sense, had come true in that instance: Indeed, only those who recognise their own fragility and their own limits can build bonds of fraternity and unity, [in the Church] and in society.

There were no flashmobs in Beethoven's day but I'm sure he wouldn't be unhappy with the Ode to Joy section of his 'Ninth' being played in a public square in Catalonia, Spain, bringing joy to young and old, his music, written nearly 200 years ago when he was already deaf, bringing musicians, singers and listeners out of themselves as it did those noisy 14-year-olds I was trying to teach 42 years ago.

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