The following is taken from a homily I preached this past weekend for the Archdiocese of Washington’s annual White Mass, celebrating the gifts of persons with disabilities/special needs and the deaf community. You can view the video of the homily here at the Archdiocese’s YouTube page.
I would like to speak to you today about the courage to see. You might not think that it takes courage to see, but it does. Most of us have many things we either don’t want to see or don’t want to hear. This is typically because it might challenge our way of thinking, summon us to new attitudes, require us to change our behavior, call us to change the way we regard other people, and/or necessitate the reordering of our priorities. Not only does it take courage to see; it takes courage even to want to see.
When we ponder today’s Gospel of the blind man (Bartimaeus) in Jericho, we need to remember that the gospels are not “spectator sports.” We are not simply hearing the story of some man who lived 2,000 years ago. No, this is our story, too; we are in every gospel. We are in today’s Gospel in several ways: we are the blind man; we are in the crowd; and, if you’re prepared to accept it, we are also Jesus (for we, too, are called to help others to see).
How are we the blind man? Some here today are physically blind, and there is obviously no sin in that, but all of us struggle with some degree of spiritual blindness. There are many things we should see, but do not. Sometimes we are afraid to see, at other times we resist seeing because we know it will make new demands upon us. We might have to question some of our political stances, or worldviews. We might be challenged to change the way we live or how we regard others. Yes, some of us are willingly blind or lack the courage to see.
We are gathered here today in particular to recognize the dignity of persons with disabilities/special needs. Some disabilities are readily apparent; others are more hidden. As we age, most of us are headed for some degree of disability. Many in our world recoil from looking at or seeing disability, and even if we see it, we often fail to recognize the dignity and gifts of persons with special needs or disabilities. Yes, many people today remain blind when it comes to seeing the dignity and gifts of those who are disabled.
To illustrate I will tell a story about my past. My sister, Mary Anne Pope, was gravely afflicted with mental illness. Even when she was in elementary school the guidance counselor called her “disturbed.” By the time she was in sixth grade, Mary Anne had entered the mental health system diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She spent the remainder of her life living in one of fifteen different mental hospitals and five different group homes. Mary Anne died in a fire in 1991, a fire she likely set. She had often heard voices in the past that told her to do terrible things and setting fires was one of them.
A great sadness in my life is that it took Mary Anne’s death for me to see her dignity and her true suffering. I was blind, and in a certain sense I wanted it that way. I had often avoided talking to her. She often wanted to talk to me about her unusual dreams and needed attention, but I made excuses and privately complained to my parents about her unwanted requests.
Four days after her death, however, I looked right into the face of her pain. The funeral directors explained that they had made Mary Anne’s body presentable enough for the immediate family to view briefly, but that her features were delicate because the fire had singed her upper body making it difficult to change her appearance or adjust the expression on her face. We gathered together for a last look, and it was then that I saw it. She had clearly died weeping. Yes, I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept deeply when I saw her. All of us did. Mary Anne! It was a grief observed, a very deep grief.
How could I have missed it all those years? Was it my fear of her? Was it my annoyance? Perhaps it was my frustration at not being able to do anything, but I was blind to her grief and to her dignity. That day, looking at her one last time, I received the gift to see her more in the way that God did. “Mary Anne,” I thought, “How little I really knew you or understood your pain. I’m so sorry I missed it. I’m sorry I didn’t understand. I’m sorry I didn’t see, that I resisted seeing.”
I was (and in many ways still am) Bartimaeus, the blind man of Jericho. My sister’s final gift was that God taught me to see through her. I resolved that it should not take a tragic death for me to see the dignity and gifts of those with disabilities or special needs.
How are we Jesus in this story? As a Church, we must help others to see. Most people prefer not to see, but we must help them to see by shining the light of Jesus on this world.
It is critical today that we help others to see the dignity of those with special needs or disabilities. In this culture of death, there are many who do not see this at all and many who prefer not to see it, prescribing death as a strange kind of “therapy.” Two critical examples come to mind.
First, there is the sad reality that more than 90 percent of parents who receive a poor prenatal diagnosis respond by aborting their unborn child. Unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome, a significant medical issue, or a special need are almost always aborted. Not only do we have no right to do this, but this demonstrates a blindness to the dignity and gifts of persons with disabilities or special needs, whether unborn, young, or elderly. God sends gifts as well as challenges into our lives. We have to be like Jesus and help others to see this.
The second issue is that of physician-assisted suicide/euthanasia. Most of us are going to be less and less able as we get older. The idea that we should be able to end our own life when the perceived quality of life diminishes is an attitude that endangers everyone, especially the disabled. Your “right to die” becomes my duty to die when I become too much of a burden to others. In countries where euthanasia and/or physician-assisted suicide have been legal for a long time, there is indeed significant pressure to end the lives of the disabled, those with profound special needs, and the dying.
This blindness to the dignity of all human persons, from conception to natural death, is one we are called to heal as the active presence of Christ in the world.
A final vision to restore in this world of preferred blindness is the vision of the great reversal that is coming. We ought to be careful to remember that in Heaven, many whom the world calls last are going to be first. Yes, Jesus said, So the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matt 20:16). Mother Mary said, He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly (Luke 1:57). Cardinal George once said, “In this world the poor need us, but in the next world we are going to need them.” This is true not only of the poor, but of those who suffer as well.
As Jesus’s presence in the world, the Church must heal the blindness of the many who fail to see not only the current dignity of those who suffer, but also their future glory.
I think I’m going to need an appointment to meet my sister Mary Anne in Heaven. Because she suffered so much more than I, she will be far more exalted.
For all those gathered here today who endure special sufferings, never forget that the great reversal that is coming. These momentary afflictions will produce a far greater glory (see 2 Cor 4:18ff).
I would like to conclude with some lyrics from an old spiritual, “Done Made My Vow.”
Done made my vow to the Lord,
And I never will turn back,
Oh I will go, I shall go
to see what the end will be.
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down;
See what the end will be,
But still my soul is heav’nly bound,
See what the end will be. (Refrain)
Do you have the courage to see?