Finding Strength in Weakness
Fr. Robert Spitzer Talks about Losing His Sight, Serving the Church, And Leading Young People to God
Editor’s Note: Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, is the co-founder and president of the Magis Center, the host of the weekly program Fr. Spitzer’s Universe on EWTN, and a national speaker and media guest on matters of faith, reason, and science. In this interview, he talks about what he has learned through his struggle with blindness as well as his passion for providing evidence-based faith resources for Catholics.
When did you begin losing your vision?
Everything pretty much started in 1983. I was a third-year student at the Gregorian University in Rome, preparing for my Hebrew exam, and I was shocked to find that I could not read the pointing beneath the Hebrew characters. Back in the United States, some specialists in Portland determined that I had a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa and that by the time I was sixty, I would probably be blind.
What was it like for you, as a young man called to the priesthood, to anticipate that?
I was just devastated and overwhelmed by the prospect that my scholarly career with the Jesuits might not be accomplished. I felt like I would not be able to do for the Lord what I thought he wanted me to do. I was walking down a hall, utterly dejected, when I ran into my provincial, who asked why I wasn’t in Rome. I told him about my diagnosis, and he invited me into his office, where I told him bluntly, “I’m damaged goods. I’ll probably lose my driver’s license at some point. If you want to stop my ordination now, I’ll totally understand.”
After he thought about it, he looked up at me and asked, “What spirit have you been listening to?” That was a really important moment. At that juncture, I began to think, “Yeah, what spirit have I been listening to?” It certainly wasn’t the Holy Spirit, so I was probably listening to the evil spirit. That changed my whole attitude, and when I realized that my superior was going to support me, I went back to Rome to complete my studies.
Over the last twenty years, as my blindness has progressed, I’ve been listening to the good Spirit say, “Forge ahead. Don’t worry about what you’re losing. I will give you the people you need who will support you, help you in your research, and produce the funds to start new institutes. Just trust me.”
And now you are completely blind, is that correct?
When I was sixty-two, my vision began to go through a steep decline. By sixty-four years old I was legally blind, and I am totally blind now at sixty-eight. But I am not inhibited in any way. In fact, the Holy Spirit uses this vision deficit to help me considerably.
Could you share an example?
Certainly. Blindness helps you to be humble and dependent on other people, as a priest ought to be. You need to be humble if you’re going to serve like Jesus Christ. At first you think, “I need to prove I’m just as capable as other people.” But that’s not necessary. What’s really necessary is a demonstrable passion for the Lord. What’s really important is praying and staying faithful to prayer. What’s really important is to do things the way Jesus would do them, not the way that I, with all of my faculties, would do them.
What are some of the problems you face now that you are fully blind?
Sometimes when I am asking for a ride from someone, I can hear them exhale at the inconvenience. It used to be so humiliating to hear that. I didn’t like being in that situation. Then I thought, “I’m going to offer this up to the Lord,” who, by the way, knows how it feels to be rejected and humiliated.
So is blindness a problem? Well, it’s a problem from the point of view that I don’t want to fall down the stairs. Are there humiliations? Yes. Are there moments where I go, “I wish I could see the mountains and the ocean again; I wish I could walk into a room and recognize everybody”? Yes, and that is an inconvenience, but it’s all totally worth it because I get off my high horse. I get to put my faith in Jesus, who becomes my strength—not my intellect, not my self-sufficiency, not my drive, but just plain old Bob Spitzer, son of the living God in the sense of being a brother of Jesus Christ—a person who is just in relationship with the Lord.
How do you think that readers of The Word Among Us—or anybody with their own personal weaknesses—could adjust their mindset about serving the Church as you did?
I would say don’t worry about what you lack. The Lord takes our weaknesses and turns them to his best advantage. At the end of the day, the disadvantages you have, the sufferings you endure, those are the real levers to pry you loose from the world—from narcissism, sensuality, and spiritual pride. If you want to get rid of that stuff, all you need is one really good suffering. Two is even better.
As it is, even though I’ve lost my vision, I’ve still been helping as many people as I can to get into the kingdom of heaven, and that’s what all of us can do. You don’t have to get fancy; all you need to do is give testimony to the Lord you love. Stand up for Jesus Christ. I think we can do it in millions of different ways. Being a good mom or a good dad—just giving witness and living a good life so that your kids can see your witness. Go to church; pray with your kids. If you do, it’s going to be about four to five times higher odds that your kids will go to church too. Tell their friends what grace really means in your life, and be fearless about standing up for what’s right.
Fr. Spitzer, in trying to help people get into the kingdom of heaven, where do you think you’ve had the most impact?
So many people today, especially young people, really want to believe in God. But people affiliated with the New Atheism movement, who believe that science and religion are incompatible, have come to their attention through the Internet or social media and subverted their faith. Thirty-two percent of practicing Catholic youth will leave and become unbelievers because they think there’s no evidence for God from science and philosophy. So I’ve tried to give them the evidence that’s out there.
For instance, I talk about individuals who have had near-death experiences—even people who were blind seeing for the first time—and that prompts readers to say, “Maybe we do have a soul.” And so they begin searching.
Can you describe some of the resources you’ve created to help people looking for credible evidence of spiritual realities?
One of our goals at the Magis Center is to provide “comprehensive and systematic responses to restore, reconstruct, and revitalize belief in God.” So there are many articles and resources available there (magiscenter.com). And at credibleCatholic.com (which can also be accessed through the Magis Center website), I have posted videos that I call “7 Essential Modules,” which people can watch and discuss with friends and loved ones.
These resources are all there to spark discussion and thought about spiritual realities like the soul, the afterlife, and the existence of a loving God. But more than just foster discussion, I want to help people learn about the dignity of every human person, the significance of virtue, the way to happiness, and the real presence of Jesus Christ.
I hope your readers can find something in these sites that will help them in the task that we all share as believers: the call to become missionary disciples.
This interview was conducted and edited by Kathryn Elliott. Kathryn is the producer of a new podcast called Unaffiliated: The Search for God which can be found at unaffiliatedshow.com