Fr. Jamie Dennis of Owensboro, Kentucky has traveled to New York City to celebrate Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church on December 13, the feast day of St. Lucy. St. Lucy’s martyrdom during the reign of Diocletian included the gouging out of her eyes, hence, her assignment as the patron of the visually impaired.
Fr. Jamie has been the celebrant of this annual St. Lucy’s day Mass since December 2016. He says he felt the call to become a priest at the age of 8, when he used to play Mass outside “on a hay bale, using a dog dish and a coffee can.”
When he’s not on a train to New York to celebrate a Mass in honor of St. Lucy, he’s either out on his boat, listening to the theme song from Mission Impossible, or traipsing around in the woods on the family farm in a black cape, slaying the thistles and thorns he encounters on his daily hikes.
Did I mention Fr. Jamie is almost entirely blind? Or that he has climbed a volcano, taken numerous cross-country train trips, and lives in a heated and air-conditioned train caboose on weekends?
He is, in a word, extraordinary.
In anticipation of this event, Fr. Jamie spoke with WPI about his annual trip to NYC and his thoughts on ways we can better incorporate the talents and unique gifts of those living with disabilities into the life of the Church.
Why is this trip to New York City to celebrate the St. Lucy Mass so important to you? Can you talk about some of your more memorable experiences at this Mass?
Fr. Jamie: Traveling to celebrate the St. Lucy Mass is very important to me, because I get to be with people who are like me and I get to thank the Xavier Society for the hard work they do for me and others in the Catholic Church, who are visually impaired or blind. I look at this journey as a pilgrimage.
The Holy Father’s prayer intention for the month of December is for people with disabilities. “We pray that people living with disabilities may be at the center of attention in society, and that institutions may offer inclusive programs which value their active participation.”
What does it mean to you personally to have an opportunity to celebrate this Mass with others living with visual impairment in honor of St. Lucy? How can our society be more inclusive, especially for those of us in the Church?
Fr. Jamie: The best memories from these journeys that I have made over the last six years always have to do with networking with others. It is a joy to be with other blind people who are very active and outgoing. Most of us who come to this event don’t sit at home; we are out and about. That’s why I especially love this event and this group of people, because other support groups for the blind tend to not be as outgoing. Those of us who are Catholic and blind are a very small group.
Last year in your homily at the St. Lucy Mass, you spoke of the community building facilitated by the Xavier Society. You also said “this is the one day of the year you get a priest like you and I get a congregation like me and that’s a big deal.” How do those on the fringes of society (not just the visually impaired, but anyone marginalized) want to see the Church evolve to better meet their needs and better incorporate them into the body of Christ?
Fr. Jamie: First, I tend to stay away from the word “inclusion.” When we try to be inclusive, that means someone is still going to get forgotten in some way, shape or form. We need to love people better and not be inclusive. Love goes beyond inclusion. I love to help people feel loved, and I love to guide them in prayer, so this particular opportunity helps me to meet my fellow blind people where they are, and where I am.
Our society can love people with disabilities and especially in the church, through making liturgy more accessible and our church buildings, and most of all our attitudes towards people of disabilities. We need to change the pre-Vatican II notion that blind people cannot be ordained because it is an impediment to orders. Bishops, priests, and especially vocation Directors need to be made aware of Can. 930 §2 in the Code of Canon Law, which permits someone who is blind to be ordained.
When building churches, my suggestion is sticking to older forms of church architecture, straight lines, and traditional structures, which are more accessible to people of disabilities, especially blind people. Churches built in the round and other post-conciliar churches can be rather difficult to navigate. As someone who has presided at Masses in several different types of architecture, the basic Gothic basilica style is the easiest for me to navigate personally.
Then there is the liturgy. I want to preface this by stating, this has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with being a traditionalist. The fact is, blind people can function better with more traditional styles of liturgy, as opposed to contemporary music and things of that sort. We as blind people are braille users. We cannot stand, hold a book, and read it at the same time during Mass or other liturgies.
Having antiphons that repeat, and things of that sort are much more accessible. This is why I am drawn to the Byzantine liturgy, because it has so much repetition, and as a blind person, I can have full active participation in this style of worship, because there is so much repetition. Also, using incense, bells, and things of that sort bring the liturgy alive for those of us who may be lacking one of the five senses. Processions, litanies, all of these things are very accessible for those of us who are blind.
This brings a new dimension to the issue of the restriction of the TLM and older forms of liturgy. Can you talk about how that affects you as someone who lives with a visual impairment, and not as someone who has a personal preference or nostalgia for one form of liturgy over another?
Fr. Jamie: Unfortunately, a stumbling block for me and others who are blind, is that the traditional forms of worship that are accessible to us has become politicized and looked at as divisive. Early liturgies functioned in a world where most people could not read, and that is why the repetitive antiphons work better for those of us who are blind.
How can we as a Church better foster dialogue and understanding?
Fr. Jamie: When it comes to bringing people from the fringes, first of all, let’s educate ourselves about people who are different from us. Let’s be open to people who are different, or even people who pray differently than us. It comes down to building relationships and talking to one another.
This goes both ways; blind people, and other people who are different, need to be open with their predicament, otherwise they will be looked at as shut-off and cold. When someone asks me how I function as a blind person, I am comfortable with explaining. My personal opinion is those who don’t like explaining things, haven’t fully accepted themselves.
Yes, it is not fair that we blind people have to be vocal about how we function and what our needs are, but life is not fair, and we have to deal with what we have, and make do with what we got. God provides. It is difficult though, because there is that balance of having to rely on others for certain things and wanting to be independent. We have to find that balance.
Physical ailments come and go, but life with Christ in eternity surpasses anything we can imagine in this world.
The Xavier Society for the Blind (XSB) provides religious, spiritual, and inspirational reading material in braille and audio to Fr. Jamie and countless other blind and visually impaired individuals worldwide. Fr. Jamie uses the Sunday Propers for the Mass from XSB; the publications of the readings and Mass prayers enable him to use braille exclusively when he celebrates Sunday Masses and higher feast days.
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.