Father Cyril Axelrod: New Ways of Communicating God’s Love
Redemptorist Father Cyril Axelrod cannot hear nor see, but he always finds new ways of communicating God’s love. Günther Simmermacher looks at Fr Cyril’s 50 years as priest and a new book of paintings.
His fingers and hands are his eyes, mouth and ears. Father Cyril Axelrod is deaf and blind, so he talks, hears and sees with his hands. The Johannesburg-born priest, who turned 79 on February 24, sees his disability as “a gift from God”.
The Redemptorist has used that gift over the 50 years of his priesthood to minister to the deaf and deafblind as well as giving preaching missions in countries around the world, from South Africa to Hong Kong.
Born into a Jewish family in 1942, and deaf from birth, he was educated at St Vincent’s School for the Deaf in Johannesburg. Fr Cyril had originally planned to become a rabbi, but in 1965 he converted to Catholicism. He decided to become a priest when at Mass one day, he noticed fellow deaf people who were missing out on what the priest was saying.
After studying at St John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria, he was ordained by Bishop Ernest Green of Port Elizabeth in Johannesburg on November 28, 1970. He was only the third deaf priest in the world and the first in Africa — and that was possible only through a papal dispensation secured by Bishop Green. The new priest’s parish, The Southern Cross reported at the time, would be all of South Africa. Soon, Fr Axelrod established a school for deaf children in Soweto, a hostel for deaf homeless people in Pretoria, and an employment centre in Cape Town. In that ministry, he cheerfully defied apartheid laws. Fr Cyril once described his vocation as helping deaf people “open their hearts to see how powerful God is in their lives”.
His path to the priesthood was written in God’s famously crooked lines, and his vocation did not follow a conventional path either, partly because of reasons beyond his control, and partly of his own choosing. Initially ordained for the diocese of Johannesburg, he entered the Redemptorist order a few years later. He describes himself as a “rabbi-priest”.
“It has always been a wonderful and challenging experience to walk on the long journey of priesthood. It helps me to discover many ways of faith in God,” Fr Cyril told The Southern Cross in an email interview from London, where he has lived for the past two decades. “I have been trying to embrace both Judaism and Christianity as one faith, as it helps me to feel so close to both Jews and Christians in the world. It motivates my continual service towards all people, irrespective of colours and creeds.”
In 1979, Fr Cyril was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder which would gradually rob him of his sight. By the 1990s he was heavily sight-impaired. By 2001, a year after he moved to London, he was completely blind. Since losing his sight — which made interaction with sign language and lipreading impossible — he has used the finger-signing method of communicating. When meeting people who are not versed in that technique, which involves touch on the palm of the hand, he usually has a “comm-guide” at his side to translate.
“I am happy to accept my deafblindness, as it is a gift from God,” Fr Cyril said. “This can be the source of encouragement for others to understand what I contribute to the people.” His ministry has reached out to deaf and deafblind people by helping them to live active lives, but also to those who encounter them, by breaking down barriers.
“It is God’s will for me to do things for people,” he said. And in meeting God’s mandate, Fr Cyril travelled around the world, often unassisted. In 2013 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II.
Fr Cyril also met Pope Francis during the Year of Mercy in June 2016, and took the initiative to bless the pope before the Holy Father could reciprocate. At the time, Fr Cyril led a celebration for people with disabilities in Rome. During a Question-and-Answer session, he encouraged parents of deaf children: “Don’t worry about words, words, words. Give the children Holy Communion!” At the same time, however, he insisted that “catechesis must be available for people of all ages and all abilities”. It may be difficult, he acknowledged, but every child who is deaf or blind or has another disability may need tailormade faith formation.
Fr Cyril had planned to come to South Africa last November to celebrate his jubilee with public Masses in Cape Town and Johannesburg, but the Covid-19 pandemic made this impossible. He thinks his travelling days are over now. “I spent many years travelling all over the world, giving preaching missions and human development services in South Africa, Hong Kong and Macau. I feel that my travel is fulfilled now, and do not plan to travel again due to my age. Now I live a retired life, doing art and writing a book about my life and faith.”
He lives self-sufficiently in a flat in London where he even cooks for himself. During the coronavirus pandemic, he experienced a “double lockdown”, as Fr Cyril’s close friend and Redemptorist confrere Fr Larry Kaufmann explained: “Being both deaf and blind, Cyril knows a thing or two about the ‘lockdown’ of his disability. The Covid-lockdown doubled Cyril’s sense of isolation.”
Fr Cyril told The Southern Cross: “Both coronavirus and lockdown have affected me in some ways, but I make an effort to keep my life creative by doing the art and writing the book. It is so important for me to keep myself motivated and stimulated in my darkness.”
Fr Larry — whom Fr Cyril calls his “soul-friend” — used his lockdown period creatively as well: by editing a book of his friend’s paintings, which have been exhibited in a London gallery. The book is titled Light in Silent Darkness: Paintings by Deafblind Rabbi-Priest, and published by Redemptorist Pastoral Publications.
Painted from the inner eye
Fr Cyril creates his paintings by using a technique involving strings with which he forms the outlines of his motifs. More strings identify the colours he uses in his art. His sketches are created freehand. He visualises the scenes he paints from his memory and imagination, an inner eye. Motifs range from biblical scenes to the BoKaap in Cape Town to still-lifes of flowers or landscapes.
“Art flowing from my hands creates images arising from my soul. Blindness can never hinder the paint I put to canvas using my forefinger. This is because for me there is always a close relationship between the beauty of the world and my abiding sense of the gift of my humanity in the midst of my silent darkness. Humanity needs to express itself in beauty. My endeavour in art is to bring light to frame, shaping an object originating in the heart of my heart,” Fr Cyril wrote in an introduction to the book.
“I was convinced of the miraculous gift of Cyril’s artistic skills, so I spent six months collating his drawings and paintings, and allocating them to different individuals to write reflections,” Fr Larry recalled.
Among those who wrote reflections on particular paintings are artists Steven Raphaely and Jan Haen CSsR, iconographer Richard Maidwell CSsR, floral artists Gail Taverner, Jill Hoskin and Rev Delysia Timm, Fr Mark James OP, Fr Michael van Heerden, Prof Tally Palmer, and others.
A particularly moving reflection is offered by 18-year-old Christopher Cerfontyne of Port Elizabeth, who as a young child mastered finger-spelling so that he could communicate with Fr Cyril, his “hero”.
“Cyril has never seen a single painting which he himself created. Instead, he invites you to use your own gift of eyesight to see them. But beyond that, to experience them with ‘heart-sight’, as he does,” Fr Larry wrote in the preface to Light in Silent Darkness.
According to Fr Larry, “with the book, Cyril has indeed come to South Africa to celebrate his golden jubilee. Cyril’s humanity, humour, spirituality, pastoral wisdom and 50 years of dedicated priesthood are truly present in this book.”
For Fr Cyril, the book is another way of building bridges between those who see and hear only by touch, and those whose senses are intact. “This book of art has a purpose of helping the reader to unfold a deep silence in the ‘darkness of deafblindness’. It also encourages the reader to feel comfortable when acquainting with a person who cannot see and hear,” the priest told The Southern Cross.
Fr Cyril does not know whether he will travel to South Africa again. “It all depends on a strange circumstance. Only God knows. And that’s the best plan for me in future.”
Buy Fr Cyril Axelrod’s book Light in Silent Darkness, Paintings by Deafblind Rabbi-Priest
Light in Silent Darkness, which includes 36 paintings and sketches in high-quality reproduction, sells for R300. It is available online at www.rpp.org.za or from:
Carmen (Cape Town) 082 949-0044 • Bonnie (E Cape) 083 357-2610 • Janet (Redemptorist Pastoral Publications) 083 228-0297 or email@example.com
This interview was published in the February issue of the Southern Cross magazine
Subscribe to receive more content like this. There is a range of options – 3,6,12 months and print, digital or a combination subscription to both (for the same price!). Order latest editions or back-copies at R30 (plus R12 p&p) from firstname.lastname@example.org, or order online for your parish
Please support The Southern Cross
Your support means we can keep Catholic news alive so that many others will have free access to the high-quality, trustworthy news they deserve. We seek your support not simply to survive, but to grow in our mandate to share the Good News and keep you informed about your Church and Catholic faith.
Every contribution, however big or small, makes a difference. Support us today – it only takes a minute. Thank you.
- Irish Missionaries in South Africa – Poverty, Chastity and (d)is-Obedience - April 7, 2021
- Was St Joseph Chaste? - March 19, 2021
- Father Cyril Axelrod: New Ways of Communicating God’s Love - March 9, 2021