JAMES ISLAND – Imagine the trauma of waking up to darkness one morning after nearly 40 years in active church ministry, to discover that the pain you thought was sinusitis was really a disease that has suddenly taken away your sight.
That is precisely what happened to Father Joseph G. Maher. At age 65, he was struck blind.
“I had severe headaches and then in two days it hit me. I went blind,” the diocesan priest said. “It took me a year to recover.”
The lengthy recovery period was caused, in part, by vertebrae that cracked from a massive regimen of steroids prescribed by in a vain attempt to reverse the blindness. But part was the battle to overcome the emotional shock of being rendered sightless.
“God looked the other way at the beginning. I asked, ‘God, where are you?’ It was a very discouraging period. My whole life changed,” Father Maher said. “You feel useless. You can’t do the things you did.” Gradually, with the encouragement of many of the hundreds of friends he has made in the Diocese of Charleston over the years, the priest’s spirits began to recover. He said that his disease has now actually strengthened his spiritual life, forcing him to face head-on the palpable difficulty of accepting what God allows
Temporal arteritis, a sort of stroke behind the eyes, may have stolen his sight and damaged his spirit temporarily, but it has not ended his decades of priestly service. Father Maher celebrates Mass, hears confessions, teaches at a Catholic school and visits the sick. He counsels parishioners at the Church of the Nativity and fellow priests. He is busy with his career.
One of the volunteers who assist the blind priest at liturgies is Sister Noreen Buttimer. She reads some of the Sacramentary and the Gospel for him at Mass, although he has memorized the consecration and other essential prayers. Parishioners at Nativity know to receive Communion in the hand, since Father can’t find mouths easily in the dark, but visitors sometimes need direction. The celebration goes so smoothly that many don’t realize that the presider is blind.
“He functions very well,” Sister Noreen said. “People enjoy him because he is such an understanding man, a man with a strong pastoral spirit.” Father Maher visited the birthplace of his parents in Ireland last year. While in-country he went to call on Sister Noreen’s mother, who was dying. That sort of concern has moved many people to help him function fully again. Two of those people are Betty and Frank White, who have known the priest for 40 years and accompanied him to the old sod. They know him well enough to realize that he would be reticent to impose on friendship regularly for favors.
“So we entered into a little business arrangement with him. I retired to go to work for Father Maher on Tuesdays and Thursdays and take him out on weekends. He goes wherever he is invited to go. It’s amazing the things he can do,” Betty White said.
She said that she and her husband knew and loved the priest so well that they feared he was slipping into depression and was in danger of never getting back into the mainstream of life. It would have been easy for him to give up. One problem, White said, is that people are afraid of blindness and shy away from engaging him in conversation, fearful of saying the wrong thing. Children are less constrained in their honest approach to life, however, and Father Maher finds his mornings at Nativity Catholic School refreshing.
One student asked him how he knows when to go to bed if it’s dark all the time.
“Many people are very self-conscious about my blindness, but children have no fear,” he said. “They just grab me and take me to their class. They ask all kinds of questions.”
He still feels emotional pain, he said, but his friends and the children at Nativity have reversed the inner darkness that once threatened to consume him. A big breakthrough was the intercession of Father Henry T. Barron, pastor of Nativity. Father Barron invited the blind priest to reside at the Nativity rectory after he had recuperated from his back problems at a private home. Eventually, he took his invitation one significant step further.
“Father Barron asked me if I was willing to try saying Mass again,” said Father Maher, who had been pastor at Nativity for seven years when he was sighted. “I’m happy with my life now. I’m very grateful to him and to the community.” White said that the pastor and Melanie Pinckney, the rectory housekeeper, have done wonders for Father Maher’s life.
“They could not have done more for him if he had been a member of their own families,” she said.
Father Maher has become an inspiration to many people since blindness took him, but the obverse is also true. When he visits terminally ill patients who are in pain he experiences greater understanding of their suffering and admiration for what they go through than he did prior to the onset of his disease.
“It’s different being on the other side of the pew,” he said. “I feel a closer bonding to people and understand people’s problems more now.”
The blind priest admits that his own journey since the day he woke up blind in October 1993 has been over a rough road. He still suffers mental anguish.
“All the anger’s gone, though. When I visit shut-ins I realize that at least I’m walking and talking and getting around. And people I know take me for what I’m worth.”
To the many friends of Father Joseph Maher, that worth is substantial