Blindness poses new challenge for retired priest
BY ED CULLEN
Advocate staff writer
November 02, 2012
The Rev. Pat Mascarella knows the meaning of the famous line in John Milton’s poem, “On His Blindness,” but that doesn’t make patience come any easier for the priest who slowly lost his sight.
“Thousands at his bidding speed and post o’re land and ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and waite,” Milton’s poem concludes.
Mascarella, 71, and retired, continues to serve. It’s the waiting that he doesn’t do well.
“I haven’t learned patience,” Mascarella said one afternoon in his Spanish Town apartment, guide dog Pace asleep at the priest’s feet.
The yellow lab has taught Mascarella a little about patience.
“Pace wasn’t trained to be aggressive,” the priest said. “If he were, I couldn’t walk near people in tight places like the farmers market.”
Mascarella and Pace are regulars at the Main Street Market, a downtown farmers market.
“Pace isn’t aggressive. He’ll pull me away from another dog or a car if the car’s running.”
Visually impaired since childhood, Mascarella’s vision diminished over the years to light and shadow.
Three years ago, Mascarella took leave from St. Theresa of Avila in Gonzales to train at the Affiliated Blind of Louisiana Learning Center on West St. Mary in Lafayette where he learned Braille, how to walk with a cane and to cook.
These days, though retired, Mascarella serves on the Louisiana Rehabilitation Commission, meets with a priests’ support group, counsels, hears confession and fills in at Mass for priests who’re called away.
Seeing poorly as a child made Mascarella stubborn and independent, he said.
“One time in school the teacher told us to draw the Earth. I drew in the continents. The teacher said, ‘No countries, that’s OK, you don’t see well.’ By the end of class, I’d drawn in all the countries.”
Mascarella likes living downtown because he isn’t dependent on the buses. He grew up on a vegetable farm on Highland Road across from where the Highland Veterinary Clinic is now.
“You want to talk about the bus system?” he said. “I’ll talk about the bus system and bicycle paths. We need both. Instead of concrete in this city, we need green space. The sidewalks are terrible.
“My (guide dog) trainer looked at Highland Road and said, ‘You’re not taking this dog on that road!’
“I’ve defended my native city against colleagues from New Orleans who think Baton Rouge is Podunk, but a city this size needs reliable mass transportation, good sidewalks, pedestrian-friendly streets and sustainable neighborhoods with grocery stores, drugstores and restaurants. We need public transportation between cities.”
As many ways as Mascarella can name that blindness makes him different, he can counter with ways that make him like everyone else his age.
Going blind was bad enough, he said, but losing the last of his sight at the same time he retired was doubly hard.
“I lost my structure,” he said.
Mascarella doesn’t want to oversell the great things about going blind, but losing his sight in one world illuminated another.
“I began to dream in vivid color,” he said. “A flower bed, yarn in all the colors of the rainbow.”
“I learned to ask people for help and to rely on their goodness,” he said.
Mascarella talks about the tenants of “Chateau something” where he lives on Spanish Town Road. He’s aware of their comings and goings, their routines and concerns.
“There are days — get this right, I’m not a saint — that blindness is a gift. It makes me pay attention to what’s around me, the smells, things I hear, the touch of fabric or wood, the smell of the grass, you know, creation.”
There are days when the priest does not see blindness as a blessing. He can’t find his sunglasses.
They’re on the carpet, inches from the nose of sleeping Pace.
“You have to ask people, ‘Is there a tree in front of me?’ And, ‘Where’s the men’s room?’ so you don’t pee in your pants.”
“Blindness has deepened my faith,” he said. “I thought I’d prepared myself for going blind, but you can’t. I don’t think God made me go blind, but he draws out of my blindness purpose.”
Being a priest denies Mascarella one of Pace’s chief attributes. The guide dog is a babe magnet.
“He’s a big flirt,” Mascarella said. “He loves women.”