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We live in a society that looks at suffering and disabilities as curses, circumstances to be avoided at all costs. If an unborn baby is imperfect, she should be aborted. If an adult becomes infirm, he should be able to end his own life. In the name of compassion, we eliminate the flawed and congratulate ourselves on being good enough.
The Church stands strongly in opposition to this inclination, fighting for the unborn, the elderly, and the handicapped, for their dignity and their very lives. People with disabilities have something to offer the world, not only when they happen to have some particular talent. Human beings are a gift simply because they exist.
This week, Mother Church offers us two saints with disabilities to contemplate. September 25 is the feast of Blessed Herman of Reichenau (also called Blessed Herman the Cripple). Blessed Herman was born in the 11th century with cerebral palsy and a cleft palate. He also suffered from spina bifida or spinal muscular atrophy, all of which combined to make moving and even speaking very difficult for him.
By all worldly measures, Herman was a burden. He could contribute nothing to his noble family and caring for him was extremely difficult. Then as now, however, the Church valued every life. Herman was entrusted to a Benedictine monastery when he was seven, there to be cared for in obscurity.
But Herman was no ordinary man. He was a genius. Though his body was weak, making both speaking and writing a terrible chore, his mind was brilliant beyond all telling. As the monks began to care for him, they realized that his disability was only a small obstacle between Herman and greatness.
Herman’s education began, but soon he outstripped his tutors. He was a musicologist, an astronomer, and a mathematician. As a historian, he wrote a detailed history of the Western world in the first millennium after Christ. He read Arabic, Greek, and Latin. He wrote theology and poetry. He built musical instruments and astronomical equipment. He was called “The Wonder of His Age,” and all this before turning 40! Towards the end of his short life, Bl. Herman went blind. No longer able to study as he had, he turned his unparalleled mind to composition, writing the Salve Regina and the Alma Redemptoris Mater before dying at age 40.
Saint Pacificus of San Severino (1653-1721), on the other hand, lived a golden life. Born into a noble family, his body was perfect and his mind along with it. He entered the Franciscan order and became a priest and a professor of philosophy.
Respected as he was, Fr. Pacificus was well aware that his salvation wouldn’t come from learning or the esteem of the world. His task was the salvation of souls, and he begged to be sent out as a preacher, encountering sinners in their struggles and leading them back to the embrace of Christ. For five years he wandered the Italian countryside preaching, until his feet began to develop crippling, untreatable sores.
Pacificus accepted this cross, giving up his successful preaching ministry to sit for hours each day in the confessional. There, too, he was useful. But Pacificus’ goodness didn’t lie in his usefulness, and as his disease progressed God was teaching him (and us) just that.
Next, Pacificus lost his hearing. Sign language was very limited at the time but he got by with crude gestures. Still, Fr. Pacificus submitted, rejoicing to carry the Cross with Christ in some small way.
He could no longer teach or preach or hear confessions, but he could still celebrate Mass. Until his sight, too, was taken. The great orator was now blind, deaf, and crippled. And in this lay his great gift to the world. He was holy in his usefulness, but he became a saint not by accomplishing but by being. Pacificus suffered joyfully, even when abused by his nurse. His peaceful acceptance of God’s will so conformed him to the heart of Christ that he experienced ecstasies and was eventually elected superior of his community, his holiness being far more important than his worldly abilities. For nearly 30 years, he lived in pain and isolation, dying at age 68 on September 24, which became his feast day.
Blessed Herman and Saint Pacificus stand as powerful witnesses to the truth that every life has dignity. Blessed Herman was counted useless but offered great gifts of beauty, truth, and goodness to the world. Saint Pacificus became useless in the eyes of the world so that God could show what a gift his life was. Let’s ask their intercession for all people with disabilities, for all who suffer from chronic pain, and for our culture, that it may once again become a culture of life. Blessed Herman of Reichenau and Saint Pacificus of San Severino, pray for us!
Fifty years after St. Pacificus’ death, Charles Michel de l’Épée, a French Catholic priest, created the first systematic sign language and became known as the “Father of the Deaf.”