On the way out of Jericho a blind man named Bartimaeus sat begging on the roadside. The Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus is passing by, and Bartimaeus cries out for Him to have pity. Jesus stops and asks him what he wants Jesus to do for him.
“Master, I want to see,” he says.
Jesus replies, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” And he received his sight, and then followed Jesus. You can see with your eyes, yes, but you can also see with your mind, heart, and spirit. In this episode of Faith Full we meet Fr. Jamie Dennis, a Catholic priest who is blind, whose journey to helping others see the way to God has not always been easy.
“Here is sort of the blunt truth and I’m not trying to put the Church in a negative light, I’m just stating a fact: the Church hasn’t always been good at dealing with people who are, quote unquote different. It’s difficult.”
You can skip to a section from this episode:
On the tail of a summer rain storm, Fr. Jamie Dennis stands on his porch as a natural chorus of Gray Treefrogs and cicadas pulses from the nearby Kentucky treeline.
The scene near Owensboro wouldn’t draw a double-take if only for the porch not connected to a house. Instead, Fr. Jamie stands outside his train caboose, just one of the many intriguing details in the life of a 34-year-old Catholic priest, who is blind.
“I visited the Kentucky Railway Museum for the first time when I was in kindergarten,” he says. “Several of the locomotive engineers that ran the trains through my hometown are also members of the museum. And so there’s a railroad crossing in my hometown of Caneyville. And my parents would take me there to watch the trains go through. And I got to know some of the engineers.”
Fr. Jamie could still see when he was younger, though his vision progressively worsened with a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. The rods and cones in the back of the eye start to die, creating an ever narrowing tunnel vision.
“When I was in sixth grade, I commented to one of my engineer friends, oh, I hate seeing cabooses being scrapped. If I could, I’d rescue one and live in one,” he says, adding joyfully: “And I’m standing on its porch at the moment!”
In 1998, as a seventh grader, Fr. Jamie received his caboose, without windows or doors, and the paint peeling away. By the time Fr. Jamie graduated from high school in 2004, the restoration work had begun, and he was living in it after his first year at college. The restoration continues though with help of his local Knights of Columbus council, which will repaint the caboose for the first time since the 70s.
Fr. Jamie hopes to restore it to the Illinois Central railroad colors, and secure a place on the historic registry, as just one demonstration of his love for rail.
“I also own my own narrow gauge railroad that I drive, and operate. So I’ve got almost a mile and a half of track,” he says. “It runs around our farm and we have 150 acres. So the railroad traverses the bottom half of the farm, and I run it totally myself. Because, you know, you don’t have to have a steering wheel because it sits on track, and so I run it. I know every bump in my track.”
Fr. Jamie and his father built the track themselves, with Fr. Jamie saying he probably laid a half-mile of track by himself, totally by feel, as his vision loss was well underway during the project.
Half of his family farm is fields, and there’s also a lake created by merging ponds, which Fr. Jamie can cruise in a pontoon boat.
The property is home to numerous shrines, celebrating St. Anthony, St. Kateri, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Michael the Archangel, and more. And every good rail operator needs a station, so there’s also “Union Station” for an incredible model train set-up—complete with a figurine of a priest—and a space to gather.
“I can give retreats, banquets, and I have an altar set up in there so I can celebrate Mass there,” he says. “It’s basically what a train station is for. It’s to gather people, to take them places and of course, in this case, not necessarily a physical place, but a spiritual place.”
Fr. Jamie says his journey to the priesthood began at home. He couldn’t see most of what happened while at Mass, but the words of the consecration of the Eucharist stuck with him—that’s the point when Catholics believe bread and wine are transformed to the body and blood of Christ. Fr. Jamie says his farm animals would be his congregation when he played Mass as a child.
Growing Up While Losing Vision
Before undertaking the formal path to the priesthood though, Fr. Jamie faced a rough road of being a young person who was losing his vision. Already in kindergarten he was wearing glasses, which was a rarity, and they thought he had astigmatism.
“I started learning how to read Braille in fourth grade. And I actually took some short courses for a couple of weeks at a time at the Kentucky School for the Blind, which I hated,” he says.
Strike one: he was a country boy in the middle of a city.
Strike two: the school told him that’s where he had to be.
“My classmates at home didn’t think of me as all that different because they had, you know, grown up with me. You know the sad thing was my parents were being told you can’t raise him right, and he needs to be in Louisville,” he recalls.
Fr. Jamie says this led to a campaign of sorts to convince the powers that be that he should be allowed to be in a standard public school setting. He says the local TV station filed a report, and his supporters made the case that he has a right to an education just like anyone else, as the Americans with Disabilities Act ensures.
“I label schools for the blind as segregation.”
“And I mean, basically, that’s what it was. You can’t handle your children, they need to be in a different place, separated from everyone else,” he says, admitting his use of segregation is controversial.
“Some blind people that went through the schools for the blind get a little uncomfortable when I say things like that. I’ve had some arguments that I tell people, I say, you know, there’s no reason why we can’t be at home in our regular schools, thanks to the technology we have today,” he says. “There’s absolutely no reason. And all the money that is spent on dorms and all this stuff, it could be used at home.”
“And the best thing of all, we get to be with our families. And the second best thing of all is that our presence in the school system means other children see this as normal and don’t look at us as different,” he adds.
A third benefit of keeping blind children in a standard school environment, Fr. Jamie says, is that it also helps blind children better know how to deal with sighted people in the real world.
Road to the Priesthood
Fr. Jamie wanted to eventually work for a railroad—big surprise—and went to Brescia University, a Catholic university in Owensboro. He hadn’t been confirmed in the Catholic church yet, but decided he would go to Mass every day to learn about his faith. He eventually changed his major from business to ministry, but still didn’t embrace the idea of being a priest, despite a professor mentioning it.
After a cousin died of cancer, Fr. Jamie’s family asked him to speak at the end of the funeral Mass, and he sought advice from his college president, who mentioned he and the Bishop had talked about Fr. Jamie should go to seminary, which he eventually did.
And then came new challenges like finding texts and religious materials in Braille.
“Here is just the blunt truth, and I’m not trying to put the Church in a negative light, I’m just stating a fact: the Church hasn’t always been good at dealing with people who are, quote unquote different,” he says.
“It’s difficult. I mean, I was the first blind person to go to my seminary, and at first they did not want to accept me. I’ve been kind of a trailblazer in my own journey, but for so many people [they] don’t know how to self advocate.”
Fr. Jamie says he was helped, and still is, by an organization in New York called the Xavier Society for the Blind, which works to provide Catholic Braille and audio materials, free of charge.
“That’s why the Xavier Society is so important because sometimes the Church just doesn’t know any better, in a sense, doesn’t know, oh, we should make this accessible for people because of this, this, and this,” he says.
When Fr. Jamie was looking to get a vital religious resource transcribed in Braille, the Liturgy of the Hours, he says the authorities in Washington, D.C. were skeptical.
“They thought we were trying to make money off of it. And it took a year to finally get the permission to have it Brailled, and it was because, you know, it just hadn’t been done,” he says. “They didn’t understand what we were trying to do. And the focus was on the money, you know, and it’s sad, but that’s what happens.”
In the last episode we heard more about Fr. Jamie’s connection to the Xavier Society, and how he had to get the Liturgy of the Hours in Braille. These are the Psalms prayed in a four week cycle, around which a priest’s day is supposed to revolve around. (Please check out our last episode!)
Fr. Jamie figures there are only about 10 blind priests in the U.S., and most are not parish priests like he is at Blessed Mother Parish in Owensboro. Most priests who are blind are members of religious orders, he says, and it wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council that blindness was no longer an obstacle to someone pursuing the priesthood.
Now, the law of the Church, Canon Law, affords a blind priest to be assisted if needed, otherwise—carry on.
Fr. Jamie says the Xavier Society has opened up new connections for him with people considering to follow in his footsteps.
“[It helps] get me connected to other blind priests. They’ve helped potential seminarians get connected with me and other blind priests who are discerning priesthood themselves,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Fr. Jamie says one seminarian in Los Angeles wouldn’t be accepted to his local seminary so Fr. Jamie helped him find another Diocese. He also stands as a resource for questions the young seminarian might have, like why priests wear vestments, or why Catholics sit in the presence of the Eucharist for Adoration.
“I told him, I said, OK, and, you know, Jesus is present in the Eucharist. He said, yes. I said, well, during Adoration, you know, they placed the consecrated Host in a vessel called the Monstrance for the sighted people to look at. And I told him, I said, you and I, since we cannot see the Host, we have to let Jesus look at us.”
The Traditional Latin Mass and Byzantine Rite
Fr. Jamie says he has an affinity for the Traditional Latin Mass (Also called the Tridentine, or Extraordinary Form) and for some rites that utilize the senses in a different way.
“The Byzantine liturgy is actually very accessible to a blind person, because you repeat so many prayers over and over again,” he says. “I’ll just be blunt: the Novus Ordo Mass is a little less accessible because we don’t chant as much in most parishes.”
(The Novus Ordo Mass means the new order, or ordinary form of the Mass, as in the way Catholic Masses have largely been celebrated since the 1960s. This is contrasted with the Extraordinary Form, or the Traditional Latin Mass.)
“Different parishes use different hymns, and I’m not going to carry a five volume Braille hymnal with me. It ain’t gonna happen. It ain’t gonna happen,” he says. “I am very traditional. And that’s part of it is because traditional forms of Catholicism are more accessible, because there’s a lot of repetition.”
Fr. Jamie says one of the things he loved about his seminary, St. Meinrad, was one of the monks had composed English psalm tones into Gregorian chant. So Fr. Jamie can chant his Liturgy of the Hours, or parts of the Mass, without reading music.
“I chant a lot of the Mass because especially when it comes to Braille. I can pray the prayers easier because singing doing the chant gives me a rhythm, which gives me a little more comfort,” he explains. “Because my brain is having to translate dots into speech. And so the rhythm of the chant makes it flow better as opposed to just reciting it.”
“We blind people have to have structure,” he adds. “You mess with our structure, our routine: we’re lost.”
Fr. Jamie says Byzantine liturgy has a focus on the unseen realm; at services incense is going constantly with the subtle jingle of bells on the Thurible (incense burner.)
“Those are sense-stimulating things,” he explains, adding he also has tactile religious icons. All of this adaptation and integration help him act in his vocation as a priest.
Prior to the Second Vatican Council, a priest who became blind could pray the votive Mass for the Dead, the shortest Mass, because it could be memorized.
Fr. Jamie says he turns to the Xavier Society and other resources to turn more materials into Braille, broadening the ways in which he acts in his vocation as a priest.
“Being a blind priest is possible. I can do anything that any sighted priest can do, except I can’t drive a car,” he laughs, though there’s a serious point. “They said we questioned your usefulness to your Diocese because you’re in a rural diocese and, you know, that means a lot of driving and things like that. I have volunteer drivers. All of my drivers volunteer, they’re parishioners.”
“A lot of them are retired and a lot of these people feel like they can’t do anything else for their parish, but they can drive a car,” he says. “And they’ve learned that through assisting me, driving me, there’s a lot of other things they can do, too.”
“If there’s anyone out there who’s a young man who’s thinking of seminary, regardless of whether you’re blind or not: don’t be afraid. Just try. With God, lots of things are possible,” he says finally. “It’s a difficult world we live in. But it can be dealt with.”