by Audrey Seah
Part I – The Deaf Experience
In recent weeks, much ink has been spilled over Cardinal Sarah’s speech encouraging all priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem and the Vatican’s clarification note that followed. Numerous opinion pieces have appeared supporting either side of the issue or the co-existence of both in support of liturgical diversity. In view of what has been discussed, I do not wish to critique or rehash the arguments for and against ad orientem worship, but would like to offer an alternative perspective is seldom considered – that of the Deaf who use American Sign Language (ASL) in worship and those with special needs such as auditory processing deficits (the hearing version of dyslexia) or speech and language impairments.
In offering this perspective, I do not intend to speak for the Deaf or people with special needs. I speak only as one who has had the privilege of being immersed in Deaf culture at Gallaudet University this summer, worships regularly at a Deaf church, a student of ASL, and a visual learner. With the help of those working in Deaf ministry, and members of the Catholic Deaf community, what I do hope to do is raise awareness and prompt further reflection upon an issue can affect the ability of a sizable but often invisible and silent population of Catholics in the Church.
Deaf Culture and American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL) has been used by those with deafness in America since the 1800s, but was only recognized by state governments as an official foreign language from the 1960s onwards after the linguist, William Stoke, put ASL on the map with his revolutionary monograph: Sign Language Structure: An Outline of the Visual Communication Systems of the American Deaf. Contrary to what many hearing people believe, ASL is not signed English or a gestural language. Rather, ASL is an independent language with its own grammar and vocabulary (many of which do not have word for word equivalents in English).
The official recognition of ASL as a natural language is a key factor that has led to an awareness and acknowledgement by mainstream American culture of the existence of a “Deaf World” – a society with a rich history, political agenda, and flourishing culture known as Deaf Culture, all of which are united by a common language. In the Deaf World, the word “deaf” is used to refer to one’s hearing status in terms of hearing loss, thus implying a primary identification with the hearing world. In contrast, ‘‘Deaf’’ stresses the Deaf person’s membership in a cultural-linguistic minority group. For the Deaf, being unable to hear is not a medical or social disability. Being Deaf is a gain, rather than a loss for human diversity.
It must be added that one does not need to be Deaf in order to be part of the Deaf World. Many children of Deaf adults (CODA) are culturally Deaf even though they may be hearing and inhabit both worlds. Likewise, many good interpreters are part of the Deaf community, just as a good non-native Chinese interpreter might immerse oneself in Chinese culture in order to understand the nuances of the language. Those with auditory processing deficits, cerebral palsy, autism, and aphasia who use ASL to communicate are also often part of the Deaf World.
Since the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged the existence of the Deaf World in its own way. In 1966 Pope Paul VI gave formal approval for priests to use sign language at Masses with deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics. The Church also began to allow those who are born Deaf to seek priestly ordination with no restrictions. Today, there are numerous Deaf priests, deacons and lay pastoral ministers serving in thriving Deaf parishes and ministries all over the world where the sacraments are celebrated in local forms of sign language such as British Sign Language, American Sign Language, langue des signes française, Filipino Sign Language, Korean Sign Language and so on. In the U.S. alone, there are Deaf third-order lay Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, nuns, and even a lay consecrated virgin. Deaf Catholic communities also have vibrant social justice ministries, catechetical programs, retreats, etc.
At Deaf parishes, Deaf culture is a locus theologicus [theological topic – ed.]. A priest working in deaf ministry once recounted a homily to me in which he asked the congregation if they thought they would be hearing in heaven. Half of the people had said “yes”, and the other half answered “no.” To the half that responded “no,” he asked, “how then could you communicate?” One man chimed in, “God’s not stupid! Everyone will know ASL!” His answer was enough to give me pause. I immediately reimagined my image of Pentecost. If there were a Deaf person among the many who gathered on Pentecost, perhaps there weren’t just tongues of fire, but flaming hands that rested on the heads of everyone as well.
Over the course of 6 weeks this summer, I’ve had the opportunity to worship regularly at a St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, MD. At this parish every liturgical minister, except the priest, is Deaf, yet hospitality for all is a priority. Having also worshipped with other Deaf communities, I have come to realize that hospitality is more than a courtesy; it is one of many unique spiritual gifts of the Deaf Catholic community.
For someone who does not know ASL, going to Mass at a Deaf parish is akin to attending Mass in a foreign country where you do not know the language. But in the spirit of hospitality, Mass is celebrated in what is known as “total-communication” in order to include everyone at Mass – the entire Mass is signed facing the people and then interpreted into voiced English either by the priest or an interpreter for the benefit of those who do not know ASL. There is also a projector that projects the words of the readings and Mass responses in English to aid participation. To enable Deaf-blind people to participate at Mass, parishioners often take turns to echo the signs in the readings and prayers and describe liturgical actions for each Deaf-blind person so they may pray along. The Deaf-blind person “sees” or “hears” what is signed by holding on to the hands of his personal aid. It is also not uncommon to have lectors with special needs such as cerebral palsy proclaim the readings.
For practical reasons, I have limited my account to a tiny fraction of the Deaf Catholic experience and their gifts. My intention is only to give those who have not been to a Deaf church an idea of what it is like and to raise awareness of what is an invisible population to many people. Furthermore, I believe that supporters of ad orientem worship have not adequately considered those who communicate visually in their arguments. In light of the Deaf experience, I will put forth an argument for celebrating Mass facing the people as a development of doctrine in part II of this essay.
To learn more about the Deaf Catholic community and its history, check out Dr. Lana Portolano’s blog Word and Sign.
(1) Sacred art depicting the sign for Jesus in ASL and the handprints of people from the community graces the back of the sanctuary space, serving as a beautiful reminder that one communicates with Christ through their hands.
(2) A stained glass window depicting an 18th century priest and pioneer of Deaf education, Fr. L’Epee, with the two Deaf sisters he taught. The three of them are describing the meaning of faith using three signs – to think, believe, and trust.
Audrey Seah completed her MA in Theology with a focus in liturgy at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in 2012. She is a doctoral student in liturgy at the University of Notre Dame.