Hearing God in the Silence

Posted: 6/10/2010

Father Charlie Hughes with mission membersAfter decades of deafness, Father Charlie Hughes can once gain experience sound

Father John S. Rausch

Father Charlie Hughes remembers when a fellow Glenmarian and a few friends stopped at his house in Manassas, Ga. The trim wavy-haired host enthusiastically greeted the carload with a hearty handshake and a warm welcome in his Brooklyn accent.

The Glenmarian introduced Father Charlie “as our Glenmary misfit”—at least that’s what Father Charlie heard. Actually, the word used was “mystic,” something Father Charlie figured out before the visitors left, giving everyone a good laugh.

Father Charlie is celebrating 60 years under Oath this year, having served missions in Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. He  also served as Glenmary’s president for four years and worked in formation and recruitment.

During much of his ministry he labored as a hearing-impaired priest, struggling to hear confessions, offer counseling and listen to the weak whispers of the dying.

The root cause of his deafness is genetic, as his father and older brother both suffered the same condition. Like his family members, his hearing diminished gradually.

Father Charlie first discovered his hearing problem while studying in Rome in 1957. In order to hear, he found himself needing to sit in the front seats for class lectures. Taking the oral exam for his doctorate degree presented a real challenge, as he sat on stage and the examining professors sat in the audience firing questions at him in Latin. “Nevertheless, the Lord was good to me and I passed the exam,” he says.

By paying close attention to people as they spoke he learned to read lips. During his years of teaching in the seminary and in vocation recruiting and promotional work, his deafness bothered him but never prevented him from doing his ministry. “I carried on for years, making the best of it,” he recalls.

By 1990 he had no detectable sensation of sound in his left ear. Carrying on conversations, understanding lectures, conducting parish council meetings and hearing confessions became more difficult, as was using the telephone or listening to television.

When he conducted classes at a Georgia prison, he missed much of what the inmates were saying. “I felt sure I sometimes answered a different question than the one a particular inmate had asked,” he says.

Father Charlie received senior member status in 1993. Although his deafness made it difficult to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of a mission pastor, he found other ways to continue his ministry. He carried on his prison ministry via e-mail and newsletters and he served several Glenmary missions in Georgia as sacramental minister or short-term administrator. Today, he is a priest in residence at St. Mary on the Hill Church in Augusta, Ga., where he celebrates weekday and weekend liturgies.

Last year, at 81, he received a cochlear implant, a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is deaf. Six weeks after the surgery, he experienced sound in his left ear for the first time in 20 years!

“It’s not like ordinary sound,” he says, but “it’s great for confessions. I’m satisfied to live out this deficiency because I see it as an expression of the Lord’s unique love for me. My deafness has played a significant part in my relationship with God. Thanks be to the Lord!”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 Glenmary Challenge