Eye doctor’s vision sharpened helping others

Julie Filby

God blessed Highlands Ranch ophthalmologist Jim Conahan and his wife Molly with many miracles through their vision-restoring surgery clinic in Ixtapa, Mexico—once Conahan said ‘yes’ to God’s plan.

The couple along with their three children established the ministry, the Mission of Healing Eyes, in 2007 to serve the area’s impoverished blind.

“It’s immediate and it’s amazing, and you can imagine the incredible joy on both sides,” he said of the patients who come for healing, as well as the doctors and staff who provide it.

The joy is crystal clear once Conahan, a parishioner of St. Frances Cabrini in Littleton, removes blinding cataracts from patients’ eyes and replaces them with implants. When vision returns the next day, many see for the first time in years, such as “Juanito.”

“Juanito had cataracts in each eye and literally couldn’t see two feet in front of him,” Conahan said of the 47-year-old who had been blind for 10 years. Therefore Juanito had never seen his 6-year-old daughter Angelina, who was with him at the clinic.

“When Brian (my son) took his patch off, he didn’t look at Brian, he didn’t look at me; he looked over at his daughter and just whispered: ‘Muy bonita Angelina.’

“Meaning you’re just so beautiful,” he continued, “because he had never seen her.”

Conahan said with each mission trip, now 17, there is always one story like that.

“This (ministry) is really a group of dedicated volunteers whose spiritual inspirer is Mother Teresa,” he said, indicating it’s more than humanitarian work. “We use her model: that we would like to see the face of Jesus in these blinded poor.”

A core group of 12-15 volunteers travel to the clinic twice a year, every October and May. The next trip is scheduled for May 17. In seven years, they have seen some 7,000 patients, performed more than 1,700 cataract surgeries, and distributed more than 12,000 pairs of glasses.

“The amazing thing is the story behind it,” Conahan said. “This has nothing to do with Jim Conahan and everything to do with turning your ‘yes’ over to God and letting him navigate it.”

The seed was planted in March 2006 when the family: Jim, Molly and children: Megan, Matt and Brian were vacationing in Zihuantanejo, Mexico. Conahan had previously done cataract surgeries on the east side of Mexico with a group from Boulder County Hospital, and because his children had accompanied him on the trips, they were aware of cataract symptoms.

“I was sitting on the beach enjoying myself when Megan (then 14) came up and said: ‘We need to come down here and start seeing patients … everyone has cataracts, you can tell.’”

With good intentions, but not much optimism, he told his daughter they could look into it—knowing that obtaining government permission, finding space and purchasing supplies were huge undertakings.

“I don’t want to squelch your enthusiasm but it could take years,” he told Megan.

Piece after piece of the puzzle continued to fall into place until Conahan realized God was hitting him “over the head with a two-by-four”: permission was fast-tracked, clinic space was offered, supplies were sold to him at a significant discount, and medical staff volunteered to go. The following October they returned to Mexico—each hauling 50 pounds of supplies—and established the clinic.

“When we arrived there were 150 people waiting to be seen,” he said. “And it stayed that way consistently for the next four days.”

Word of their healing ministry has continued to grow through the years, and the Conahans and their team continue to respond.

“This is God’s plan,” he said. “In my humility what I had to realize is that it was really about my arrogance in the beginning. It was about me saying ‘yes’ to God and he just took care of the rest.”

For more information, visit www.healingeyes.webs.com.

Donate glasses
During Lent, St. Frances Cabrini Parish at 6673 W. Chatfield Ave. in Littleton will collect prescription and reading glasses and sunglasses for the Ministry of Healing Eyes in a basket outside the gathering space. To make a monetary donation, call the parish at 303-979-7688 or visit www.healingeyes.webs.com.

COMING UP: Hopes for the October Synod on Young People

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Being met with hope by some and suspicion by others, in light of the recent sex-abuse scandals and the nature of the topics being discussed, the Synod of Bishops on the theme of “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment” set to take place in Rome Oct. 3 to 28, will feature bishops and representatives from around the world to address the needs of young people ages 16 to 29.

Young adult leaders from the Archdiocese of Denver and the United States shared with the Denver Catholic the challenges they have seen in their ministries and the response they hope to see from bishops in the Synod.

“One of the biggest challenges we have as a Catholic Church is our young people leaving their faith. The reasons they leave the faith are as simple as not feeling welcome in the Church and as complex as not believing anymore; lack of faith, commitment and interest,” said Alejandra Bravo, Hispanic Youth Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Not only is there a lack of faith from our young people but there is also a lack of attention from us, the Church, to them.”

“I think secularism has hit young adults and millennials particularly hard, more so than other generations or age groups,” added Mary McGeehan, Young Adult Ministry Specialist for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Because the secular culture appeals so much to our senses and emotions, it’s hard for many young people not to just drift with it.”

Nonetheless, McGeehan also holds that one of the reasons why young people are leaving the Church has to do with the misconceptions they have of it and the lack of authentic friendships that can help them overcome these challenges.

“I think most people leave the Church not because of what the Church really teaches but because of what they think the Church teaches. For young adults we often have to address a lot of these misconceptions,” she said. “Also, I think for the people that have fallen away from the Church what they need the most is authentic friendships with other Catholics their age. They need to see the truth of what the Church is and not what they think the Church is.”

Moreover, Katie Prejean, author, catholic speaker from the Diocese of Lake Charles in Louisiana and one of the three young adult delegates chosen by the USCCB to attend the Pre-Synod Gathering in March 2018, highlighted the impact of relativism and the wide variety of problems that young people from ages 16 to 29 face.

“In general, a big challenge is that young people are living in a culture that is so blatantly relativistic, [in which] everybody says that you can believe anything,” she said. “So, young people, I find, are often trapped in the thought,  ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to believe.’”

She also said that young people in high school are in a different stage from young adults, in the sense that they are searching for something and at the same time don’t want to be told, which brings a particular challenge for that age group.

The preparation for the Synod included a Pre-Synod working document presented to Pope Francis by 300 young adult delegates that participated in the Pre-Synod Gathering on March 25, 2018.

The document touched on the many topics that affect young people throughout the world, ranging from questions on the use of social media to sexuality, gender, the role of women and the need for accompaniment and authentic witnesses in the Church, among others.

“The result was a valuable experience of dialogue and learning — so valuable that I think that continuing the process of listening to a wide range of young adult experiences is important,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia on an article published by First Things.

Seven bishops from the United States will attend the Synod. Five of them were elected by the USCCB: Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop José H. Gomez, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano and Bishop Robert Barron. Two of them were appointed by Pope Francis himself: Cardinal Blase Cupich and Cardinal Joseph Tobin.

A faithful response

The preparation for the Synod on Young Adults has not been without controversy. Some Church officials said the document that sealed the meeting by the 300 young adults gave room to heterodox teaching and to the implementation of “agendas” by some bishops, since the document stated that some young adults wanted the Church to change her teaching on issues related to morality.

Prejean, who partook of the Pre-Synod Gathering, considered it a “heartfelt letter of young people written to bishops,” and that it showed the wide range of questions and difficulties young people are facing throughout the world.

“Prudence is obviously necessary. We want to make sure that agendas are not being pushed forward, and that this is not an opportunity to change church teaching,” she said. “[But] if we approach the Synod with an attitude not properly placed … then we’re not leaving room for goodness to come out of it.”

Prejean hopes that bishops address the issues of sacramental preparation as a way to a relationship with Christ and the accompaniment of young people in the most important stages of transition, among other topics.

McGeehan thinks that an important step is that bishops “acknowledge the reality of the problem. Young adults are not attending Church as much as we would want to. A special outreach needs to happen for this age group,” she said. “As a Church we need to focus on how we can better support young adults in the changes and transitions, whether that is looking for a job or discerning their vocation.”

Bravo hopes that the Synod brings forth a plan of action: “The young people spoke up; we have heard them. We know their needs, fears, challenges and desires. What can we do to bring them into a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ? … A plan of action that nurtures and advocates for love, patience and caring for our young people; a plan of action that encourages young people to be leaders, to follow Mary’s example and to be not afraid.”

While the faithful should be paying attention to what is being said at the Synod, Prejean also encouraged all to pray intentionally for the guidance of bishops during the 25-day meeting.

“The future of the Catholic faith belongs to those who create it with their fidelity, their self-sacrifice, their commitment to bringing new life into the world and raising their children in truth, and their determination to walk Christ’s ‘narrow way’ with joy,” Archbishop Chaput reminded in his column. “May God grant the 2018 synod fathers the grace and courage to lead young people on that path.”