When a lector finishes the reading in Mass, parishioners don’t typically clap or cry. Then again, Ryan Rohrich isn’t your typical lector.

Because while the 29-year-old may be sharing Scripture, he can’t actually see it. He’s blind.

“I’m grateful to be proclaiming the word of God,” said Rohrich, a parishioner of St. John of God Church in Norwalk. “In those moments I feel his presence with me. 

“I am more than my disability.”

Rohrich wasn’t born blind but lost his sight due to a cancerous brain tumor a decade ago. But that hasn’t dampened his desire to serve his parish and beyond. Every day, he dons his dark sunglasses, grabs his cane, and goes where “God leads.”

Rohrich, who lost his sight after being diagnosed with a rare cancerous tumor, recites a reading using braille during a recent Mass at St. John of God Church in Norwalk. (Victor Alemán)

At a recent Youth Mass at St. John of God, Rohrich’s presence at the ambo took some parishioners by surprise, but that quickly gave way to admiration. Father Nitesh Gomez saw the transformation ripple through the crowd. 

“It was really amazing,” said Gomez, associate pastor at St. John of God. “Everyone was paying more attention. They were looking at him like he was achieving something great and he is. We all have these abilities, we can see, but we hesitate to do something like Ryan did.”

Instead of ordering braille Scripture, Rohrich makes his own. Before Mass, he listens to the readings on his cellphone and then transcribes it with a braille typewriter. During Mass, he uses a cane to navigate out of the pews and to the ambo. Finally, he grazes his fingers over the embossed text and shares the word.

“I would be less nervous if I read braille faster,” Rohrich chuckled as he often does. “But I’ve been told over and over again the whole point of proclaiming is to read slowly and I can do that!”

The Norwalk native said he’s needed his trademark sense of humor, especially when his life took a dramatic turn at age 18. On a family outing to Lake Elsinore, Rohrich noticed his vision was “grainy” and he was never hungry but constantly thirsty. An eventual CT scan revealed a tumor had formed behind his right eye and was destroying the optic nerves and pituitary gland. 

If that wasn’t enough, the tumor was potentially cancerous. His parents and five siblings grappled with the news the only way they knew how — through prayer. His dad immediately went to the hospital chapel and placed his hand on the Bible. 

“I said to the Lord, I need you. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even understand what’s happening,” said Ryan’s father, Paul. “Please help me.”

There were long waits for appointments and an even longer wait to find a skilled enough surgeon to perform the delicate biopsy. All the while, Rohrich’s vision was getting worse until one day he awoke in total darkness. That’s when panic set in.

“It felt like the world closed on me,” Rohrich said. “I felt extremely claustrophobic. I had to feel the sheets, feel the wall. … I thought, OK, I can’t see the world, but the world is still here.”

Despite being blind, Rohrich finds ways to serve God and others and is considering religious life. (Victor Alemán)

Doctors at City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte eventually performed the biopsy and determined the tumor was a germinoma, a rare but largely curable cancer that strikes young people. The radiation and chemotherapy that followed were tough on Rohrich and tough on his family to witness. Rohrich lost his strength, his hair, and even some of his hearing, but never lost his trust in God.

“Ryan was squirming in bed from the pain,” Paul said. “I could hear him giving his pain to the Lord, offering up his suffering for the other children going through chemotherapy at the hospital. Not one time do I recall him ever questioning or calling out to God ‘Why did you do this?’ ”

Four-and-a-half grueling months later, the cancer was gone. While relieved he didn’t die, Rohrich now had a new challenge: How to live blind.

Through a state-funded program, Rohrich attended the “Orientation Center for the Blind” in the Bay Area. For more than a year, he lived at the residential school to learn skills he would need, like reading braille and how to walk with a white cane. Guide Dogs for the Blind also provided Rohrich with Twain, an English Labrador Retriever. 

Once Rohrich returned to Norwalk, he attended Cerritos College, where he developed a passion for pottery. Using his sense of touch and visual memory, Rohrich makes clay bowls, vases, and sculptures. He starts each piece with a prayer.

“Lord, as I center this clay, may I be continually reminded how important it is that you are the center of my life,” Rohrich said. “I, as the clay, and you as my potter.”

Twain, an English Labrador retriever and Rohrich’s guide dog, lounges with him outside of the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte. (Paul Rohrich)

Rohrich feels God is molding him into something more. He said he experienced an internal “vision” where Mary appeared before him and revealed the crucified Jesus.

Rohrich believes the answer is a vocation, perhaps as a religious brother. The idea is something he’s considered before thanks to the example of Capuchin friars Father Peter Mary Banks and personal friend Father Victor Taglianetti, who performs Catholic rap music under the moniker, “Bro Vic.”

Rohrich said blindness may make it harder to pursue a vocation, but it may also make him better suited.    

“All your prejudice about people goes away when you can’t see them and you get to experience a person for their character and not their appearance,” Rohrich said. “I am able to give more generously, share more generously. The virtues that I’ve developed through this redemptive suffering has allowed me to have a greater capacity for love.”

At St. John of God, members of the Serviam Men’s Group said they’re not surprised that Rohrich may enter religious life. Each month when they feed the homeless in Long Beach, Rohrich acts as the group's unofficial “Prayer Master” and spends time with those seeking spiritual comfort.

“Just to hear the way Ryan prayed over people, the words, the emotion, the affection … he considers all of them children of God,” said Rick Ochoa, leader of St. John of God’s Serviam Men’s Group. “Ryan is a very humble servant.”

As Rohrich continues to discern and volunteer, he hopes his journey is a reminder that even during dark times God keeps his promises.

“No matter the state of your life, as long as you give God your yes, He’ll walk with you on the pathway to heaven,” he said.