Not long ago, in the pre-COVID era but still in recent memory, a group of American and European Catholics of the “young professional” demographic gathered in Europe to study Catholic social teaching for an intensive few weeks.
The students at this annual seminar are always extremely bright, interested in their faith, diverse in their pursuits and backgrounds, but one with the Church. Admission is competitive.
Those selected are living examples of St. Paul’s teaching in his letters about the different talents and callings within the Church. A few are seminarians or priests or nuns, others will go on to those vocations. Young doctors (in school or in practice), teachers and academics, lawyers, diplomats, musicians, etc. This session was no different.
But one student in this particular seminar was out of the ordinary. Franciszka, as she will be called here, was blind.
Franciszka handled her disability with great grace. She happily accepted the aid of others around her when offered, asked for it on occasion: for crossing the street, getting to the classroom, getting a cup of tea. But at least to the casual observer, her requests and her needs never seemed demanding, never uttered with the cry of a victim.
They just constituted part of the way things were at this seminar.
Franciszka had shown exceptional independence in her life. She had traveled to a remote town in Asia to visit some children whom she had met online and was supporting. She had moved through many scenes in many places.
Strange effects followed from her presence in the seminar almost immediately. Young men who seemed very much of their own moment in time suddenly appeared as nobles of a more courteous age when Franciszka took their arm to cross the street (or in one case, to complete a long and difficult hike in the mountains). Young women who might have been enjoying the seminar’s active (and festive) social life well into the night before were quite alert to helping her in the morning.
When the time came for me to get her a second cup of tea at breakfast, and later to walk with her across the street to class, I felt as if I had been done a great favor, given a great honor.
But the most remarkable thing about Franciszka was her face. That face was never a mask.
Conversing with Franciszka, you always knew where you stood. If she agreed or disagreed, you knew it. If she was interested or uninterested, you knew it. If she was amused or delighted or confused, you knew it.
Most of us, seeing the faces of those around us and in the mirror, develop an ability to mask our expressions, when needed, which lets us navigate the exigencies of social life. Genuine expressions are “filtered” and held for times when we are with those we most love and trust.
Franciszka’s blindness had robbed her of this facility, and given her something much more important, which she shared with those who talked with her: frankness, freshness, honesty. We can all share those qualities as we talk with others, but it’s less frequent and more guarded, and it even requires effort. For Franciszka, it came naturally and constantly.
The French have long resisted the Muslim niqab and burka that cover a woman’s face. Those French I have talked with about this, from different points on the political spectrum, agree that such a covering is “not French.” It removes a key aspect of personhood, the face that we encounter in conversation.
Franciszka’s always-open visage was the very opposite, the very expression of full personhood.
This openness, as I said, had remarkable effects. It gave a very clear and present visibility to the Catholic understanding of being a person that is at the core of this seminar. It demonstrated the truth that conversation is part, perhaps the most important part, of being human, the animal gifted with logos or rational speech.
And our faces, like our words and thoughts, matter to our conversation.
The students at this seminar always come together and “gel” as a community, though year by year that gelling varies in pace and intensity. That year’s group quickly formed a very close community in a very special way.
Surely that was, I believe, due in some large part to Franciszka’s presence, and to the grace others found in responding to it. Her disability and her undisguised face provided a tremendous gift to her fellow students and teachers.
I have thought of this experience often in recent months, as the controversy surrounding facemasks has raged during the pandemic. At least some of the resistance stems, I think, from the sense that we are deprived of something deeply personal and good when, whether for necessary or dubious medical reasons, we can no longer see the full faces of those with whom we speak. That deprivation seems like an act of violence against us as persons.
Medical science seems to be dealing with COVID, one way or another, and perhaps it will someday cure Franciszka’s blindness.
But if that great gift of sight comes to her, I hope she will not hide her wonderful expressions and replace them with a mask. Those around her would lose a great deal.
Postscript: I chose “Franciszka” as this student’s pseudonym for various reasons. But I’ve now Googled the name, and one source says its meaning is “free one.” In her case, that’s certainly right.
*Image: Head of a Young Girl by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1898 [private collection]