A French Catholic and his mission to the blind

A French Catholic and his mission to the blind

Pope Francis touches a plaque illustrating Vatican City and written in Braille during a special audience with the Italian Blind Union at the Vatican Dec. 13, 2014.
CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

The church’s historical commitment to the humanities, philosophy, art, medicine and literacy (at least among ecclesiastical leaders) is well-known, especially after the Carolingian monastic movement turned centers of prayer into centers of learning in the Middle Ages. The science of linguistics was also molded by Catholic thinkers in many ways throughout the centuries.

One that is often overlooked is the mission to the blind by French scholar Louis Braille.

In his childhood, he damaged his eye in an accident while imitating his father in his workshop. A pointed awl badly injured one eye, resulting in an infection that spread to the other, and eventually cost him his sight completely.

A devout Catholic, Braille left his family at 10 years of age when he was admitted to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris. He loved liturgical music and would eventually become the organist at famous French churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas and Saint Vincent de Paul.

But, of course, Braille’s most renowned contribution to the “life of the mind” was the system of written communication most associated with his name. Inspired by a series of raised dots used to communicate in silence and secrecy among soldiers on the battlefield, Braille replaced the bulky and limited raised Latin letters that existed in books for the blind of the time with a simpler and more efficient system which was a testimony to his genius and would come to provide a metaphorical window into the storehouse of human knowledge for countless blind men and women over the centuries.

Those not fluent in the language often don’t realize that music and mathematics require separate adaptations, which are used around the globe.

Today the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of visually impaired people live in poverty, with a large percentage of them in areas of the world plagued by violence, malnutrition and little social mobility. This means that formalized education is already in scarce supply in many of these situations. For those who cannot use their eyes in the same way as most of us, the hope to learn to read would be practically impossible were it not for Braille (both the man and the system of writing).

Beyond the commitment to the common good evidenced by using this system to combat illiteracy in such individuals, they can also now directly access the stories of our salvation history through Braille bibles. An organization in England, the United Bible Societies, translates, publishes and distributes such editions of the Scriptures around the world.

The Catholic News Agency recently explained the difficulties of such a process. The technology and thick paper necessary usually mean a single copy weighs almost 90 pounds and costs about $600 to produce. There is certainly missionary discipleship involved in helping to evangelize this enormous population through these activities, especially at these exorbitant costs.

Saint Paul teaches that none of us see reality clearly now, but rather “as though through a glass, darkly.” And think of how many blind people Jesus reached out to during his lifetime. All of us in some aspect lament along with Bartimaeus: “Master, I want to see.” Those of us who follow Christ often assert that we continue to walk by faith, and not by sight.

Yet, this spiritual language ought not to allow us to fetishize disability or to minimize the severe complications that physical blindness brings about in the lives of those afflicted with it. Those in situations of profound disadvantage, especially in poor countries, are not somehow magically closer to God because of their “humility.” Braille understood such difficulties and felt a vocation to bring about betterment in the quality of life for those like him, who dwelt in total darkness.

His commitment to their suffering challenged him to advocate for those needing support while in this world, not simply consoling them to wait to dwell in “light inaccessible” in the next. We can thank God for this commitment and the good unveiled by it in the lives of so many.


Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

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