Blind priest brings warmth, energy to his ministry

In her past five years as a docent at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., Dee Steel has met some interesting visitors. One of the most “inspiring,” she said, was a priest from the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, Father Mike Joly, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Yorktown, who visited last February. Father Joly was eager to learn all he could about the shrine, but Steel had to take a slightly different approach to the tour because Father Joly has been blind since he was 5 years old.

“It was a lot of fun describing things to someone who couldn’t see them,” Steel said. “He was so enthusiastic, asking lots of questions and wanting to know everything.”

Father Joly led a group of his parishioners to the National Shrine, one of many such tours he has led to Catholic sites of interest around the world.

“He really wants to see the world from other people’s eyes,” Steel said.

Vision not required

Father Joly, 51, was born into a Catholic family in Cumberland, Rhode Island, the eighth of 10 children. His father was a man of modest means who worked as a part-time policeman and a full-time tire salesman. At age 5, young Mike had surgery to remove a benign brain tumor pressing against his optic nerve, which led to his blindness.

“I was in the hospital for over a year and twice died on the operating table,” he said. “It is fascinating, as I look back on it, that God in his providence had a plan for such a weak man as myself.”

After leaving the hospital, he said, he carried on his life much as a sighted child would, which included going downhill and water skiing and camping. “I don’t think I knew I was blind as a kid,” he said. “I wanted to do all the things the other kids were doing. It’s a miracle that I’ve never broken a bone.”

As a teen, he became interested in music and took a job as a choir director in a local parish. Providing the music at several Masses a weekend had an impact on him, as “hearing all these Scriptures repeated, it was hard not to be affected by the profundity of God’s word.”

He also attended some “pivotal” retreats in his youth, and he began running retreats and missions himself.

“I love holy Mass, as it’s the glue that keeps the universe together, but it does not create a conversion but feeds a conversion,” he said. “Retreats create a possibility for a conversion, so that’s how I got involved in running them.”

He spent a year in a school for the blind to learn the skills he needed to manage his blindness, but he was mainstreamed into regular schools at a time when such a practice was uncommon. He went into the mortgage industry after graduating college but found himself unfulfilled. After a period of intense prayer, he made his way to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore “at a time when it was unheard of that a blind guy would be accepted.”

He recalled that Father Robert Leavitt, the president and rector of the seminary, who would become his mentor, told him that while the seminary had never had a blind seminarian before, they’d be willing to give him a chance.

“Father Leavitt is a visionary,” Father Joly said. “He knows how to be an instrument of the Lord and not block his grace.”

Improving technology has been an invaluable aid to Father Joly, beginning with machines to create the Braille texts he needed, audio tapes of books from the Library of Congress and computers and software for the blind. Today, he notes, his iPhone has functions for the blind that are tremendously helpful.

A fruitful priesthood

Father Joly was ordained a priest in 1994 and assigned as pastor to his current parish of 800 families in 2009. He describes it as a faithful and active parish in the historic community of Yorktown, located just a mile from where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. Despite his blindness, he’s able to do most things a sighted priest can do. “I know how to function as a blind guy,” he said.

Debbie Baker has been a St. Joan of Arc parishioner for five years and sometimes assists him as his driver. She describes Father Joly as “loving and warm, and his homilies really strike a chord with me. He encourages us to avoid the harmful things of our culture and to focus on more spiritual things.”

Msgr. Patrick Golden, rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, describes Father Joly as a “great friend” as well as “a very direct, principled and authentic priest.” He noted that he has a good sense of humor and has a talent for working with young people. He’s not afraid to ask for help when he needs to get somewhere, and “he is very outgoing, and not one to sit around and feel sorry for himself. I often tell people to treat him as [a] sighted person, because that is almost how I see him.”

Jerry Wilkins, the parish sacristan, said Father Joly not only likes to preach on the need for evangelism but is a remarkable evangelist himself.

“It doesn’t matter where he is, he’s always evangelizing,” Wilkins said. “It could be a waiter he meets in a restaurant or a clerk he meets in a store. He tells them he’s a Catholic priest and asks, ‘Do you go to church? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Do you know that Jesus Christ can save you?’ He does it in such a tactful way that usually people will talk with him about it.”

He added that Father Joly was particularly effective with young people and has played an important role in attracting some to the priesthood and religious life. One, Wilkins said, is on track to be ordained to the priesthood next year.

Wilkins’ wife, Martha Wilkins, added:

“He’s the hardest working priest I’ve ever known. He is always coming up with new ideas.”

‘No longer a burden’

Father Joly’s interests include travel and music. He’s been to Israel four times, visited India on retreat, stayed in Ecuador to learn Spanish, traveled to Germany to attend the Passion Play, served as a spiritual director on pilgrimages to Italy and walked Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

The cover of Father Joly’s album “Never More Me.” Courtesy image

Even though he can’t see, he learns much from the experiences. Walking through the countryside of Spain, for example, with its sounds and smells and the feeling under his feet, gave him an appreciation of landscape.

“I came to understand landscape and the beauty of it,” he said. “For the first time, the paintings in my house came to life. I understand how awesome landscape is.”

Father Joly is also a talented singer and recorded a Christian album, “Never More Me,” which he uses in his ministry. He has a second album in the works.

While he doesn’t know faces — he doesn’t have the “foggiest idea” what he looks like himself — he has developed an intuitive sense of getting to know people. When they lead him around by the elbow, for example, he can detect “what their comfort level is with me, their sincerity, nervousness and general stature. Their appearance, however, doesn’t occur to me.”

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He recalls a period in his 20s when he was frustrated with his disability and complained to God: “I’m a physically blind guy in a physically sighted world. What are you going to do with this?” He has since come to accept his disability so that “blindness is no longer a burden.”

“Sometimes I have a parishioner ask me, ‘Would you like to see again?’ I say, ‘Not necessarily.’ It’s not something I focus on anymore.”

Jim Graves writes from California.