Deafness as a gift--that is how Paul Fletcher, a profoundly deaf British Jesuit, sees his situation in a world of mostly hearing people. I met Paul when he visited my Jesuit community in Manhattan before returning to England after completing his studies at Weston School of Theology in Massachusetts. “My deafness was discovered in kindergarten,” he told me. “The teachers informed my mother that I was not pronouncing clearly, and at first they had labeled me as retarded.” Once the correct diagnosis of profound sensory neuro-deafness was made, however, speech therapy began. Paul had already begun to pick up lip reading, and as a way of encouraging that form of communication, his parents deliberately seated him and his siblings at a round dining room table. “This was one of the ways they made an effort to include me,” he observed. “At a round table I could see everyone’s lips and follow what they were saying.”
A Catholic boarding school for the deaf followed. “It was a happy experience,” Paul said, “because for once I was with people like me.” More difficult was the step that followed--moving on to a Benedictine college, roughly the equivalent of an American high school. “It was a hearing school, though,” Paul noted, “and so the adjustment was difficult.” By the time he graduated, the possibility of a religious vocation began to surface, albeit not with the Benedictines.
After receiving a degree from York University, Paul worked in the library of the British Museum and then, with a graduate degree in hand, at the library of Brixton College in South London. During this time, he had been attending a Mass in sign language at Westminster College. “God understands sign language,” he quietly observed, underlining the fact that most of the hearing world does not. Through contacts at Westminster, he was invited to attend a Jesuit-sponsored Ignatian retreat.
“All I wanted to do was relax,” he said, in part because of enervating conflicts with his boss at work that had resulted in great stress. But God had other plans. During the retreat, Paul spoke with a Jesuit confessor who suggested he pray for his difficult boss and “bring her into the prayer.” After initial resistance he began, and weeks later learned to his astonishment that his boss had decided to take early retirement. “I realized then that prayer could be dangerous,” he said with a smile.
The library at which he was working was near a community of Jesuit scholastics (seminarians). “One day I stopped by, and the vocation director happened to be there.” The writing, so to speak, was then on the wall. Just over a year later Paul entered the British novitiate. “I gave up my job and my apartment and felt as if I’d come to my real home, because in the novitiate I was made to feel not just included, but welcome.” It was during this period that he had what he called a near-mystical experience that led to the realization that his deafness was indeed a gift from God.
After his ordination in 1997, Paul became one of only two profoundly deaf Jesuit priests in the world. (The other is a Jesuit of the New England Province with whom he lived at Weston.) Since then he has been involved primarily in retreat and parish activities--including work with the deaf community in Britain, for whom he often celebrates Mass. “There,” he said, “they accept me as one of their own.”
Even within the Jesuit order, though, adjustment has not always been easy. Although Paul is proficient in lip reading, this can become exhausting in community life when animated conversations take place among a number of people at once. “I have to remind my confreres to speak clearly,” he said, “because they don’t always realize I’m trying to follow the movement of their lips.”
But overall his present experience of religious life is one of consolation: “God brought me here for a reason, and in the Jesuits there is a recognition and acceptance of my gifts--somehow, I know I’m not alone.”