The Lame Entering First

Today, on the Deacon’s Bench, Deacon Greg Kandra shares the story of Christopher Klusman, a Milwaukee seminarian who is, in his own words, “Deaf with a capital D”.

From the oringal Catholic Herald article:

I told children and other people that if you put your heart into it, you can be anybody you want to be, but for some weird reason, I saw that I could become anybody, any job except being a priest,” he said.

That was until his UW-Madison college friends introduced him to Msgr. Glenn Nelson, the director of Deaf ministry in the Diocese of Rockford, Ill.

Roadtripping to Illinois for Bible study

They took road trips to Illinois where they would attend Bible studies that left him feeling “on fire,” and made for great conversation on the ride back and late into the night. Klusman remembers not wanting to leave.

“I came up to him and I said, ‘Thank you for the great Bible study session, I loved it,’ and that’s when he popped the question,” said Klusman, who was about 27 or 28 at the time, “He said, ‘Christopher, have you ever thought about the priesthood?’ Wow, that put me on the spot. I felt like a deer stepping on the highway with the lights.”

Klusman shared his concerns – that he didn’t know if it would be possible – but the priest told him that nothing’s impossible with God.

“He was kind enough to offer his time to meet with me once a month to discern…,” Klusman said of what led to him applying for the seminary.

I wonder whether one unexpected up side to North America’s vocations crisis is a new willingness among vocations directors to consider disabled people as candidates for the priesthood. Just after Christmas, I attended a Mass celebrated by a priest who wore leg braces and got around on crutches. One of the priests at a parish I visit often has a very pronounced stutter. I can’t say how it compares to Moses’, but it slows down his speech by half. I don’t expect my priests to be scat-singers, so his presence at the altar is very inspiring.

On this page, you’ll find the stories of some priests who entered the priesthood with some pretty extensive disabilities, along with some pretty impressive talents.

Fr. Rick Curry, S.J. was born without a forearm. (Thalidomide, maybe? It doesn’t say.) After joining the Jesuits as a brother in 1961, at the age of 19, he earned a PhD in theater from NYU, and founded the National Theater Workshop for the Handicapped. In 2003, he founded the Wounded Warriors’ Writing Program for disabled veterans.

In 2009, Rome finally granted a dispensation from the rule that barred Curry from ordination on the grounds of his handicap. On September 27 of that year, at the age of 66, he was ordained a priest.

Fr. Mike Joley has been blind since age 5:

At age 17, Mike began taking his Catholic faith seriously. A year later he was hired as choir director for Sacred Heart Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. In his senior year at Rhode Island College, Mike responded to the increasing pull toward the priesthood. He received a bachelor’s degree in human resource management, and graduated magna cum laude. He continued his education at the Dominican, Providence College where he worked in the area of philosophy.

Despite the fact that no blind seminarian had ever been received into seminary domestically, Fr. Joly gained entry to St. Mary’s Seminary and University Baltimore, Maryland in 1990 where the then current seminary rector, Fr. Robert Leavit S.S., welcomed the young man and trusted his vocational call. Fr. Mike graduated in June of 1994. “I had a conviction that this was an attainable goal and this was God’s will,” Father Joly explained. Relying on methods both ancient and modern to get through college and seminary, he also had people read to him. Eventually he acquired the technology that allowed him almost unlimited reading – a computer scanner and software that can read a printed page out loud.

Father Joly admits that modern technology has made a big difference in his life, but he strongly believes what has made his vocation possible is God’s will.

Fr. Wayne Ball was born with cerebral palsy:

Through it all, the one constant was God. I was blessed with an abiding sense of the presence of God. I grew up Baptist, and still have the bible storybook from which I would read. Two stories in particular (the story of Moses being placed in the basket, and the story of the crucifixion) I read over and over. I can still recite the opening lines of the crucifixion story. My cousin, a Baptist minister, said at my father’s funeral that he always knew I was “called to the ministry.” He just had no idea it would be in the Catholic Church. In 1980 I entered the Catholic Church and in 1984 entered Theological College of the Catholic University of America.

In college, and later in the seminary, I tried to distance myself from the world of disability.

I can now look back and see that I was still over-compensating. There is a fine line between being pastoral and being patronizing, and with the best of intentions some of the faculty and other students would often cross it. Once again God sent me the perfect person to balance my life: the only black student in the seminary, Anthony Chandler. Both of us dealt frequently with misconceptions and stereotypes. Some people assumed he must like gospel music because he was black, and some confused CP with Multiple Sclerosis, assuming my condition was degenerative and terminal. Anthony and I were able to share our frustrations and through humor tried to desensitize some of those who were overly “pastorally sensitive to our special needs.” To this day, he can still do the perfect imitation of my walk.

Nine languages (Spanish, French, Italian Portuguese, German, Russian, Latin, Farsi and American Sign) and two graduate degrees later, as I approach 50 I think I have finally come to point in my life when I no longer feel compelled to prove that my original diagnosis was wrong.

And to think I spend most of my waking hours shaking my fist at God for making me short.

– Max Lindenman

  • Elaine S.

    All these stories are very inspiring!

    As for Fr. Curry, if you do the math from the two references to his age, he must have been born in 1942 or 1943. Therefore, he could NOT have been a thalidomide baby since that drug was not introduced in Europe or the U.S. until the 1950s.

  • Max Lindenman

    I knew Thalidomide was used sometime in the forties and fifties, but didn’t know the exact date of its introduction. Thank you!

  • Mike

    As a former member of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I rejoice at stories like this. It’s just sad that he had to go to Rockford for guidance…

  • TerryC

    I have attended Mass celebrated by Fr. Mike Joley many times, and have been privileged to attend retreats where he was the speaker. He is not only a holy, orthodox priest, but also a gifted musician and song writer. The youth at his parish burn with the Holy Spirit and I know many vocations will come from the fruits of his work.
    I consider myself fortunate to know him and thank God he answered the call to the priesthood.

  • Max Lindenman


    You can tell him from me: “Some guys get all the luck.” ;)

  • JMB

    Fr. Joley came to our parish last Lent for the Lenten Mission. He brought the house down with his version of “How Great Thou Art”. There was nary a dry eye in the building, and he managed to get everyone to sing loudly!!! He is an extremely talented man and the priesthood is blessed to have him.

  • Maureen

    It’s not so much that the Church wasn’t “open” to disabilities in the past. It was that some ancient societies had a tendency to declare disabled people sacred, sometimes for nice reasons but sometimes because a disabled priest (or wizard, or blacksmith) couldn’t get away if you treated him badly (or suddenly decided he needed to be sacrificed to the gods, because your troubles were obviously proof he wasn’t doing a good priest job). Or because all the bad stuff that the community did would land on him, seeing as he was obviously already “cursed”. Or just that there was no point “wasting” an able-bodied guy on a job that somebody else could do.

    That’s why the old Law demanded that priests (like sacrificial animals) be physically undamaged — to prevent exploitation and marginalization of men with physical problems. (And to keep the Israelites from making new sacred eunuch priests every year, like a lot of the surrounding area.)

    But there were still plenty of incentives for this in Christian times, which was why it hung on. There were plenty of families who didn’t want their “good” sons to become priests, but would have been glad to get rid of their disabled sons that way. (And their illegitimate sons, which was why priests had to be legitimate sons also.) And yet, being a parish priest was a very physically strenuous job then, if you actually did what was required of you, and most priests died young even if they started whole and strong.

    However, since our culture has both improved technology to the point that being a priest isn’t quite so physically strenuous (though I’m sure it’s still emotionally and psychologically tiring!), and since our culture has devolved to the point that we no longer have as enlightened a view of disabled people as useful as (say) the ancient Norse and tend to want to kill them all before birth, it’s a good thing that this pastoral exception is being made more often.

    It’s not a shortage thing; it’s a witness thing.

  • Maureen

    The stone that the culture rejected has become the cornerstone, in other words.

  • MasterThief

    I was lucky enough to have Fr. Curry as a pastor, and to be present for his ordination. He’s an excellent priest, a great preacher, and friend to many at Georgetown.

    One clarification: Fr. Curry entered the Jesuits as a brother because at the time canon law required all priests to have a right hand. It was only after the returning Iraq/Afghanistan veterans he was working with kept asking him to hear their confessions that he decided to take the next step and become a priest, and getting the dispensation wasn’t a problem. (The only difference you notice is that he uses a ciborium – a chalice-like bowl with a stem and a base – during the consecration and distribution of communion.)

  • Max Lindenman

    Oh, that explains it! I was wondering why these other guys, with their much more severe disabilities, made it through the door, while Fr. Curry was kept out for so long. I thought it might be a rule peculiar to the Jesuits.

    When you see Fr. Curry again, tell him I’m a fan.

  • Gayle Miller

    Elizabeth, dearly loved friend, you are not short. You are fun size!

  • Max Lindenman

    Maybe so, ma’am, but I — who am still filling in for Elizabeth, who remains on the DL list — am only five-eight. For a man in the modern industrialized West, that’s disgraceful.

  • TeaPot562

    Very clever seasonal response!

  • MC

    Max, thanks for this post. I have cerebral palsy, so it was lovely to see that someone “like me” with CP has similar coping mechanisms for people who are overdoing “pastoral care.” Fr. Joly was one of my campus ministers in college, and he is a truly powerful witness for Christ.

  • Anushree Shirali

    My late father was 5 ft 8, yet any vertical deficiency was overcome by his superior personality and jovial wit. As a 5 ft. 4 woman, I also curse my fate but hope that like my father, my other qualities compensate ;). God may not have given you an above average height, but he has certainly given you a talent for the written word!

  • Anushree Shirali

    Maureen, what a witty response!

  • cathyf

    Maureen, a friend from high school claims that his seminary class’s motto was “too proud to beg, too weak to dig ditches.”