By Tim Harfmann
MANHATTAN — Father Jamie Dennis must celebrate Mass through the guidance of his fingertips. That’s because the priest from the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., is legally blind.
In the second grade, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disorder of the eyes that causes loss of vision. He said his very minimal eyesight was like looking through a small straw.
“I lost my vision gradually,” Father Dennis said. “By the time I was about to finish high school, I could not read large print anymore. So today I would say I have no useable vision.”
This month, he traveled more than 800 miles from Kentucky to New York in order to celebrate Mass on Dec. 13, the feast day of St. Lucy, who is the patron saint of the blind.
Catholics came from across the country to attend the St. Lucy Mass for the blind at St. Francis Xavier Church in Chelsea.
The annual Mass for the blind has been celebrated for about five years.
Some Catholics in the pews were visually impaired. Readings, responses and prayers were all in Braille. The blind priest is able to celebrate Mass in large part because of contributions of the Xavier Society for the Blind, a nonprofit organization that distributes readings, prayers and responses for Mass in Braille.
“Having something in Braille, that opens up a whole world of independence that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Father Dennis said.
“The readings for Sunday Masses, all of that, they make that every month, and all I have to do is have my paper clips ready to put in the book, and I’m set.”
Since 1900, the Catholic organization has distributed Braille materials to both laypeople and religious in the United States and in 20 other countries. The society maintains a catalog with more than 800 titles in Braille, including saints’ biographies, theological dissertations and contemporary titles such as books from Catholic author Matthew Kelly.
Malacy Fallon, the executive director of the Xavier Society for the Blind, attended the Mass in Chelsea. He said about 2,500 people use resources from the organization. The core of its offerings are readings, prayers and responses in Braille for Mass, especially for Masses on Sundays, special feast days and solemnities.
“Those go out on a monthly basis to over 800 people,” Fallon said. “That amounts to about 750,000 pages of braille each year. So it’s quite an undertaking.”
Helping the visually impaired live out their faith and their relationship with Christ is inspiring, he said.
“They have enough difficulties in terms of obstacles and barriers to live life every day, let alone to get to church and practice their faith, so anything we can do is just wonderful,” Fallon said.
Father Dennis was ordained in 2016. He said that while he studied for the priesthood, he worried about his eyesight.
“That was one of my fears,” he said. “How am I going to have the liturgical texts? How am I going to have biblical sources? All of those basic Catholic things that everybody else can just pick up off the bookshelf.”
But because of the material he receives from the Xavier Society, he doesn’t have to sacrifice his pastoral ministry for the sake of converting religious text into braille on his own. With the readings and prayers already in braille, he can focus more on the needs of the people in his diocese.
“I’m always having to think two steps ahead,” Father Dennis said. “I’m having to think about who am I going to get to drive me from point A to point B, because that’s a lot of my day.
“We’re a very rural diocese, so you may have a 10-mile drive to someone’s house who’s homebound, or you may have a 10-minute drive to the hospital across town. Not having to braille my own materials eliminates a lot of that,” he said.
Melissa Enaje ontributed to this article.