The chair of the Catholic Health Australia Stewardship Board has addressed a Vatican conference about the physical and spiritual care of people with visual impairment living in Australia.

Tony Wheeler was one of several international speakers invited to the conference, hosted by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, to describe efforts to improve the visual health of people in their home countries.

The deputy chair of Catholic Health Australia's Stewardship Board, Rowena McNally, also attended the conference, which had the theme "The Non-Sighted Person: ‘Master, I want to see' (Mark 10:51)."

Addressing the conference on the final afternoon, Mr Wheeler spoke of the unique vision challenges faced by Australians because of the harshness of the sun in this part of the world, which causes a higher incidence of cataract problems than in other developed countries. He also explained how some Catholic hospitals are able to ease the backlog of long waiting lists for people needing quick, straightforward and effective cataract surgeries.

"It is part of the holistic understanding of health care provision that can restore people's quality of life that our hospitals strive to deliver," Mr Wheeler told the conference. "Our Catholic universities, too, are helping to educate the doctors and nurses of tomorrow who will continue that work."

In providing another example of eye health concern that is particular to Australia, Mr Wheeler described the disparity in visual health between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, saying more needs to be done to bridge that unacceptable divide. He explained how CHA has been working to highlight the need for Governments to recognise the role social determinants of health play in people's wellness.

Again speaking from a Catholic perspective, Mr Wheeler said there is a strong underpinning in the Church for caring for those in need.

"It is from a firm commitment to Christ's healing ministry – healing in terms of body and spirit – that the Church in Australia has had an involvement in the care and education of people with vision impairment dating back more than 100 years," Mr Wheeler said.

He described the work of the Catholic Braille Writers' Association – now Villa Maria – that was formed in 1907 to ensure access to the sacraments and liturgy for people who could not read religious material. The spirit of that work is carried on today by a pair of religious sisters – Sr Helen Merrin and Sr Mary O'Shannessy – who are facilitating the audio recording of religious texts for those with visual impairment.

Mr Wheeler also mentioned Catholic schools, including St Lucy's School and St Edmund's School in New South Wales, that were founded to care for those with visual impairment and have subsequently been expanded to care for children with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities.

Alluding to the account of "doubting Thomas" in the New Testament, Mr Wheeler said the Church is doing much for the visually impaired, speaking of "a far-reaching strategy … from the top down, but also from the bottom up … to ensure that the spiritual needs of Catholics who have not seen, yet believe, can be met".

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