WALKING WITH THE EXCLUDED
Gordon: Please share with our readers some information on the challenges that you faced being born blind, how you addressed your disability, and how your disability shaped your faith.
Father Justin: I have never known what it is like NOT to have extremely limited vision (I have nystagmus, so the world is a fuzzy blur, since my eyes do not focus). This has meant that I have had to find other ways to do anything involving vision. I have a very good memory, which I have found invaluable, given my interest in law, music and languages.
From the perspective of faith, I learned very early on that all of us are both limited and dependent on others. I learned very early on that, while we have gifts and strengths, we are always reliant on others and others are reliant on us. It was a lesson hard learned – I was bullied most of my way through school and so I had to find ways of both dealing with this and with the physical limitations that came with having only residual vision.
Late in my school life I acquired a set of telescopes to get around. These inflate the blur in a small area to make it usable and they pair nicely with a cane – which allows me to find out what is going on at my feet.
Who were some of the people who influenced your life and in what ways did they do so?
My parents and grandparents were invaluable in giving me a loving home background and support without pressure to live the life to which God has called me. They gave me an excellent home education and an introduction to languages, literature and taught me to both think and examine my world, as well as giving me some of my earliest education in faith. One of my early teachers, a Mrs Ferris, protected me from some of the worst of the earliest bullying and yet also set strict boundaries.
When I moved to New Zealand and converted my legal qualifications to practice there, I was given opportunities by a former lecturer, Laurette Barnard and Francis Dawson, a partner at what was then Rudd Watts and Stone (a major law firm in Auckland). The experience of practising law, especially commercial law, while not always easy, gave me both critical thinking and practical tools, which have been useful throughout my life.
When did you decide to become a barrister, where did you study law and what degree did you earn?
I have been interested in the law as well as the priesthood and religious life, since my school days. One of the fathers at Marianhill Monastery in Pinetown, Durban (South Africa) wisely suggested that I study and work after school before considering a religious commitment. Although I was disappointed, I recognised the wisdom of this later. Accordingly, I studied law by correspondence through the University of South Africa, doing a BA (majoring in Private Law and with minors in Roman Law and Russian) in 1992 and then an LLB degree in 1995.
Why did you decide to be a Jesuit?
While commercial law was intellectually stimulating, I found it soulless – generally it was working out how to make a lot of money for folk who already had more than enough. The environment was stressful and there were tensions within the partnerships at the firms where I worked.
As mentioned earlier, I had long thought of the priesthood and the desire to explore it again came back strongly while I was doing my doctorate. Once the degree was granted, I was accepted for the Society. While that, too, was not easy – the novitiate was a spiritual learning curve and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius and pastoral works helped me explore parts of me which were underdeveloped – I felt at home in the Jesuits, and still do. Ignatius’ understanding that God is to be found everywhere and in all things and people resonated strongly with me. I feel at home in Jesuit communities. In them, it is possible to be all that I am called to.
Excerpts published with permission. Read the full interview.