CNS photo/Paul Haring via CBCP News
This year 2016 is the Year of Mercy for Catholics all over the world; and while the event is for all, there are many categories of people who are called in turn to celebrate their own Jubilee. The weekend just ended brought a special focus on those who suffer illness or disability, and who are, for that reason, at the heart of the Church.
Events opened in Rome with a presentation by Fr Cyril Axelrod, an extraordinary witness of the mysterious ways through which a person can become a sign of hope for many.
Born in South Africa in 1942 Fr Axelrod was raised as an Orthodox Jew by his family. He was deaf from birth and the only son of his parents. At that time there was only one school for deaf children in Cape Town, run by the Dominican Catholic nuns, and naturally Cyril’s parents were worried that their child might be influenced by the sisters’ religious beliefs. Thus, their ultimate decision to enrol him at the Catholic school was counterbalanced by efforts to encourage the local Jewish community to provide for the religious education of deaf children.
Cyril was fascinated by the Jewish faith and wanted to become a rabbi, but this was not possible because Orthodox Judaism does not admit people with a disability to the Rabbinate.
Cyril’s frustration, and his grief at the loss of his father led him to search for new ways to express his spiritual life; through another deaf person he drew closer to the Catholic Church and was baptized. Not just that, however: he also felt the call to priesthood.
His relatives were less than enthusiastic about his vocation; indeed, both Cyril and his spiritual guides at the seminary acknowledged the importance of his Jewish roots, to the point that he continued his Synagogue attendance during his years in preparation for the priesthood. The breach with his family was eventually healed, and his mother accompanied him to the altar for his ordination, in 1970.
At that time, Cyril was the third deaf person ever to be ordained as a priest in the Catholic Church. Invited to Rome, he was warmly embraced by Pope Paul VI, who invited him to preach the Gospel to the deaf persons; he also expressed his gratitude to Cyril’s mother, who, as a Jewish woman, had given her only son as a priest to the Church.
His first missions as a priest within the Redemptorist order were among deaf children in South Africa, fighting against the dual barriers of apartheid and disability, and helping the children through cultural and human education. To reduce the dominance of the strongest ethnic groups over minorities he favoured the adoption of English as a common language among deaf children, eventually creating the first English school for black children.
Fr Cyril’s mission soon acquired an international dimension: he preached in Singapore, in the US, and was finally asked by the Redemptorists to embark on a mission in China. This unexpected call arrived at the same time as he was diagnosed with Usher’s syndrome, an illness which would progressively erode his sight and lead to deaf-blindness.
Leaving for the Far East was not only a great challenge from the human viewpoint, as Fr Cyril had to cope with a completely different environment, nor only in consideration of his increasing physical problems, but also because he faced having to learn a new language, and one as complex as Chinese.
The cultural challenges were no less dramatic: as soon as he learned to communicate with the deaf persons they began to tell him about their marginalisation, how they feel rejected by their families and communities, and of the problems posed by the requirements of deaf-blind communication within a culture which avoids physical contact.
During his mission in Asia Fr Cyril established centres for the deaf in Macao, in the Philippines and in Hong Kong. By 2000, however, the total loss of his sight led to his being sent to London, where he lives at a residence for the deaf-blind. Once more, his life changed abruptly, with the risk, for such an active missionary, of feeling useless, isolated and powerless.
But again he started from scratch, learning the Braille alphabet and becoming a source of inspiration and pastoral care for the deaf-blind. In his own words, the seemingly impossible condition of those who cannot see and hear can actually become a new opportunity. “There certainly are frustrating moments, but also new kinds of joy to experience. My condition as a deaf-blind has become the most important lesson in my life”.
In 2013, Fr Cyril was awarded an OBE by Queen Elizabeth, who at first mistook his guide for him and was trying to pin the honour to the jacket of the wrong person. After the initial confusion, the Queen thanked Fr Cyril for his “wonderful work” with the deaf-blind, while he replied that “disability is a gift of God”; they ended up smiling at each other and shaking hands.
Now the 74-year-old priest has a blog, through which his extraordinary experience can be shared with the internet community; he strives for the rights of people with disability, but also for the recognition of the gift they are for the entire society.
As the blog says, “he wishes to challenge the world to hear his call to empower and learn from disabled people. He truly believes disabled people and children are ‘Angels sent from God’ to help us all to learn valuable lessons of unconditional love, trust, hope, faith and inner peace”. He also stresses that “it is only through interacting and empowering these people and children to ‘shine their light on the world’ that we are able to learn these valuable life lessons, which sad to say is happening rarely at this present time.”
Fr Cyril’s story is also told in a book, And the Journey Begins, which makes fascinating reading both for people who have a disability and those who have not; his words challenge many of our prejudices, since he affirms that his deaf-blindness is “a blessing and a powerful teaching tool to help others”. Indeed, it is very likely that most of our words and speeches will seem colourless and meaningless in comparison with those coming from the silent preaching of Fr Cyril.
In spite of a disability which scares us as it seems to condemn a person to isolation, Fr Cyril has become a “bridge” between human beings and between cultures: a bridge between religions, between North and South, West and East, and between disabled people and those who may have no physical impairment but sometimes fail to see and hear the gift which every person’s life is for the entirr world.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Visit her website.