CHILTON — It’s a Wednesday night. The ninth grade religious education class huddles around a table inside Good Shepherd School’s media center. Nervously, the nine students take turns reading from their textbooks and answering questions posed by their instructor.
The catechist, Ben Nolan, a young man with a pierced left ear, is seated at the center of the table. He could easily be mistaken for one of the students.
With confidence and a keen knowledge of his material, Nolan lectures on the “hypostatic union” (Jesus’ divine and human nature) and then describes how the Jewish diaspora later helped spread Christianity. His students seem intimidated, but the instructor sets them at ease. When the assistant catechist, Brea Verhagen, shows students something on her smartphone, Nolan replies, “Oh, can I see it?” The teens let out a muffled laughter and the tension is eased.
Nolan, 22, is blind. Having maneuvered his surroundings with the use of a white cane for most of his life, guiding a high school religious education class is a breeze. It helps that the material he teaches is more than a classroom subject. It’s his life’s passion.
A 2012 graduate of Chilton High School, Nolan is a senior at St. Norbert College in De Pere with a double major in theology and philosophy. During his junior year of high school, Nolan said he experienced a conversion that turned his life around.
Born with Peters Anomaly, a genetic defect that affects the cornea and leads to blindness, Nolan grew up with physical as well as spiritual struggles. “My right eye was born blind and my left eye had a clouded cornea,” said Nolan. He had his first corneal transplant when he was 5 weeks old. “When I was 11, I had several retinal detachments and that’s when I went completely blind.”
A Catholic since birth, Nolan said his faith, like his eyesight, was nonexistent.
“I didn’t really know too much about (Catholicism), nor what I believed,” he said. “After a long course of ups and downs, I kind of hit rock bottom at the end of my sophomore year of high school.”
While listening to a television show about near-death experiences, he began to explore religious topics. “Something spoke to me,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what it was. Whether the (near-death) experiences were real or not, the people who experienced them had legitimate change in their hearts. It made me think, ‘They have something I don’t and I want to live better than I am.’ So I started this whole process of research and … trying to find what was really true.”
Nolan said he didn’t want to take someone else’s word on the validity of religion or God “simply because it made me feel comfortable,” he said. “So I started looking at religions … and eventually found my way into a solid belief that Christianity was correct and over a course of time was convinced that the Catholic Church was the true church.”
His epiphany took place on March 8, 2011.
“I had been talking to one of my brothers, who is Protestant now,” said Nolan. “He was raising some objections to the Catholic faith and I was praying about it. One of the first things that came to my mind was, ‘Look up miracles.’ So the next day, March 8, I looked up miracles and I found that the Catholic Church is the only church to have reported first-class miracles for the last 2,000 years. That right there convinced me pretty much.”
Nolan said his lack of sight, figuratively and literally, was responsible for opening his eyes to God.
“If I had had my sight in my teen years, I probably would have done a lot of bad things,” he admitted. “Losing my sight gave me the opportunity to really think about life a lot. I think that’s how God was trying to reach me, to prevent me from going down a really bad path. When I started to actually want to live a better life, I would come home and I would have tons of time to do research. It wouldn’t have happened if I could see.”
He began devouring books on Catholic apologetics, theology and personal testimony. When he graduated from high school, he decided to study theology and philosophy at St. Norbert College. Thanks to a braille computer, called BrailleNote, he is able to surf the Internet, send and receive email and type letters. He received his first BrailleNote in sixth grade. “This is what I do all of my homework on,” he said. “When I don’t have this, I’m basically out of commission.”
Nolan now believes that God is directing his life. “Obviously there’s been a lot of growth, depth, things I’ve learned about myself” since his 2011 epiphany. “Christ revealed who I was to me and he revealed who he was to me,” he said. “I found the Catholic Church and just went with it after that.”
He has taken a liking to teaching others about his faith, especially religious education students. It began his freshman year at St. Norbert when he helped teach a confirmation class at the campus parish, Old St. Joe’s. “I had a passion for sharing it and one of the best ways to do that is to teach catechism,” he said.
The following year he taught students at Ss. Isidore and Edward Parish in Flintville, followed by a semester teaching fourth grade with a classmate at St. Francis Xavier in De Pere. This year he returned to his home parish of Good Shepherd, where Angeline Heiberger, religious education coordinator, welcomed him with open arms.
“Ben is one of the most well-formed catechists on staff,” Heiberger told The Compass. “He could teach adult education with his background, so we are blessed to have him. I believe his presence as a teacher isn’t only beneficial for his knowledge, but also for his example to the students. Ben is inadvertently teaching them how to give back to others regardless of his visual deficiency.”
Nolan has an uncle who lives in Chilton and works in De Pere. On Wednesday afternoons, he drives Nolan to Chilton and brings him back to campus on Thursday mornings. Even though he makes his way around campus with a walking stick, Nolan is thankful for friends who offer assistance when needed.
“St. Norbert has lot of zigzag sidewalks. When I have new places on campus to go to, I would have one of my friends show me where it is,” said Nolan, who is involved with the campus Knights for Life and the Donum Ipsum campus ministry.
After graduation next spring, Nolan plans to continue his theology studies. “I am filling out applications to five different schools,” he said. These include Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners, Wis., and Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
Knowing that theology has a narrow career field, Nolan believes he may focus on teaching theology at the high school or college level. He is also discerning a vocation to the priesthood, which seems like a natural progression and one that God will ultimately decide, Nolan said.
“When you love someone, you want all or nothing,” said Nolan. “So it’s either, ‘How does he want me to give him all of myself?’ Is it going to be through marriage or through priesthood? I don’t know how God wants me to express that gift.”
While his vision is lacking, Nolan’s faith now guides him. “When you give your life to God, he starts using you right away,” he said.