Deaf Access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation: Past and Present

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington D.C. celebrates Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, Maryland on September 22, at the start of the International Week of the Deaf. (Photo by Andrew Biraj, from the Catholic Standard)

Reconciliation has historically been one of the most difficult Sacraments for Deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics to access and continues to be so. Prior to Vatican II, children who went to Catholic residential schools for the deaf were taught to write their confessions on a slip of paper and hand it to the priest when they entered the confessional. The priest would in turn respond in writing with their penance. This resulted in two problems. Firstly, it only worked with those who had adequate English literacy skills. Secondly, it seemed to have worked at schools when the chaplain knew what to expect, but the method did always achieve favorable results for adults who attempted the same at their neighborhood parish.

Recounting some of his awkward experiences from the 1930s-40s, one Deaf man wrote, “Several times, [after] I passed my written confession through the grate, the priest began to slap his head, slap the grate, and jump around in the confessional to my great confusion. He thought that my paper was a big bug trying to crawl into his ear… Another priest would take my confession paper, run out of the confessional, back again, out again and in again, not knowing what to do. Another would look out of the confessional. When he knew it would be my turn to enter, he would send me back to the last of the waiting penitents.”(1) Suffice to say, these incidents were enough to cause him to avoid the sacrament for many years. He only returned after he learned about a priest in his diocese who could sign.

Some Deaf adults continue to use write their confessions today if they do not have access to a priest who can sign. Those I have spoken with in my research have said that they would explain what to do beforehand so the priest knows what to expect. Those who have speech and can lipread would ask for a face-to-face so they could speak their confession. Lipreading the priest’s response can be a challenge, but one can always ask for clarification in writing if need be. Cochlear Implant or hearing aid users may or may not desire or require a face-to-face confession — preferences and needs vary and can change according to the acoustic environment as well.

The Church allows those who wish to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) to use an interpreter. The interpreter is bound to secrecy according to the seal of confession, as is the priest. However, I have met no one who has ever employed an interpreter. Every Deaf person I’ve asked acknowledged the accommodation as a positive step toward recognizing their needs but also admitted that they have never used one. “Why would I? I don’t want anyone else knowing my sins!” they said.

There is no question that the vast majority of Deaf Catholics who use ASL as their primary language of communication prefer going to a priest who can sign. For many, waiting until a priest who signs come into town is worth it. When a Deaf or hearing priest who signs comes into town, news of his presence spreads. Deaf Catholics would drive more than an hour in order to see them and the lines for Reconciliation are always long. When a Deaf priest is available, confessions can last several hours. As an interpreter once said to me while clutching her right fist tightly close to her chest (a variation of the sign for hanging on to something), “The Deaf just hold their confessions in until a Deaf priest comes along!”

Needless to say, the need for a signing priest in every diocese is ever present but often unmet. Is it unreasonable to request that every bishop assigns one priest to deaf ministry and to learn ASL? In 1924, this demand was not considered far-fetched. Several seminaries owned sign language dictionaries and religious orders such as the Jesuits and Sulpicians even had sign language classes for novices and seminarians. As Edward J. Cahill, a commentator writing in “The Catholic Charities Review” optimistically exhorted, “Let the sign language be added to the curriculum and be brought to every cleric who aspires to the priesthood. The sign language is not difficult to acquire, only needed steadfast practice and any seminarian interested could learn the language well in one year with the opportunities he would have among so many for practice. Given a general knowledge of sign language among the priests, there will be created a country-wide interest in the deaf, and once every priest is working, the Catholic deaf-mute problem will practically disappear!” (2)

Cahill’s vision is not simply a practical one but an eschatological one where the Kingdom of God includes all who sign in an intimate sacrament where humans encounter the living Christ. Dare we, the Church in America today, embrace this vision?

September is Deaf Awareness month and this week is the International Week of the Deaf. Many churches around the world that serve Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have events this week for those interested to learn more about deaf history, culture, and sign languages. Find out if you have a Deaf church in your neighborhood, make a visit and see what it’s like.

(1) Voice of the Deaf, unpublished manuscript, 5. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.
(2) A reprint of the original article can be found in The Catholic Deaf-Mute Vol. 24 no. 12 December 1923, 3. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.

8 comments

  1. Spare a thought for the priest whose advancing deafness means he can’t hear what is being said. I recently had someone in the box the decibel content of whose whispered confession must have made Elijah’s ‘still small voice’ resound like a megaphone. I couldn’t hear a word – so no danger of my divulging what he/she might have said! I just hope that there was no serious matter …

    Not that I’m any fan of face to face confession, either.

    AG.

  2. Thank you, Dr Seah, for raising the profile on an important pastoral concern.

    I begin, for the sake of clarity, by pointing out that I am a Deaf priest (ordained 2012) who has worked in Deaf Catholic ministry since 1999. My second Masterate thesis addressed the question of the sacramental validity of a signed Eucharistic consecration (“The Sacramental Validity of the Eucharistic Form in Sign Language, an Inaugural Study,” M.Th. thesis, Newman Theological College, 2009). The main contours of my thesis were reiterated in an article in WORSHIP (Summer 2017).

    I hope I can offer some clarifications as a native signer, a Deaf Christian, and as a priest.

    First, Cahill puts his finger on a solution that has not “taken off,” as it were: Teaching ASL in houses of formation. I would go further and suggest that the diminution of a “missionary mindset” in the Church has led to this lacuna–that the Deaf community needs to be viewed, partially, as mission territory, with priests trained in the language of people being evangelised. Here in Canada, a good number of priests are (rightly) expected to acquire one of the various languages spoken by our First Nations peoples; I know that some American seminaries (e.g., St Patrick’s in Menlo Park) require a course in “pastoral languages,” usually Spanish. Once, while interviewing a North American prelate on his support of Deaf ministry, I asked: “Why was not a priest designated, under obedience, to learn sign language and be assigned to Deaf ministry?” His response was surprising–“I never thought of that.” The “invisible disability” of Deafness, in part, has led to “Deaf ministry” being an almost extracurricular pastoral concern.

    1/4

  3. 2/4
    Second, the anecdote about the overreacting priest in the confessional with the Deaf penitent is surely an anomaly. Never in my twenty-plus years of Deaf Catholic ministry have I heard anything like this. The more common experience is a happier one–most Deaf communities tend to revolve around urban centres and Deaf boarding schools where priests are already familiar with the presence of Deaf penitents. This, I would suggest, is the more typical experience.

    It seems to me that the majority of Deaf Catholics’ experience with Reconciliation takes place within the context of a regular mission or weekend retreat. There are, after all, about thirteen Deaf priests in North America who are fairly mobile–to the point that there is little, if any ‘starvation’ for Reconciliation, since there are also a good number of hearing priests who can sign.

    To speak of the “problem” of Deaf penitents writing in faulty English (or French, for Deaf Québécois) is a recent one; prior to the “mainstreaming philosophy” in public schools, Deaf people coming out of boarding schools usually had a better command of English than they do today. Let us be more careful with sociological data.

  4. 3/4
    In my opinion, we need to be careful with such language as “accessibility” within an ecclesiological framework because it runs the risk of reducing pastoral ministry to sociopolitical activism; “enculturation in the liturgy,” to my mind, is the healthier approach, or perhaps even “accommodation.” But the challenge is not one of language only; how do we respect Deaf penitents’ canonical right to an anonymous confession, for example? How well do we catechise Deaf Catholics in preparation for Reconciliation? In view of canon 983.2 and 990, are Deaf penitents sufficiently persuaded in that, just as they convey even embarrassing medical secrets by way of a sign language interpreter, the same can also be done in Reconciliation, where confidentiality is even more sacrosanct?

    I was surprised that no mention was made by the USCCB’s document “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” (revised edition, 2017); where advance has been made, the whole Church benefits when credit is given where it is due. Even Tanqueray’s manual makes occasional reference to the pastoral needs of Deaf Catholics.

  5. 4/4
    Finally, for all the pastoral advances indicated in the documents of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, there is only a limited reflection of that in pastoral ministry to the Deaf; besides the Missal of St Paul VI where it is possible to celebrate the Eucharist in sign language, I see little else in terms of the Council’s implementation among the Deaf community. To argue otherwise would to turn the “Deaf Mass” into a token of a “post-Vatican II Church” that is, in reality, yet to be realised. If I may modify Berkeley’s famous phrase, please indulge me: “Vatican II is the cry of many but the game of few.”

    Prior to the Council, Deaf Catholics were, by far, better catechised; significant portions of the priesthood and religious were given over to Deaf ministry as a particular charism (e.g. the Sisters of the Seven Dolors in Montreal); ICDA conventions were well-attended. My fellow Deaf priests–as well as Deaf religious and active Deaf parishioners–have expressed their frustration to me that laxity among the Church’s ministers and the Church’s missionary mindset after the Council (please: not “because of” the Council) has led to a general weakening of the Deaf Catholic community.

    That being said, we would do well to reread AD GENTES with the d/Deaf community in mind and to view it as the hermeneutical key in applying the other documents of the Council towards the Church’s pastoral outreach to the d/Deaf, both those within the Church that they may grow to full maturity in Christ (cf Eph 4:13) and outside the Church, that they may receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ alone (cf Acts 4:12).

    Fr Matthew-Anthony Hysell OP MA MTh
    Dominican University College

  6. I am aware of this anaphora, but I find that Eucharistic Prayer II is best for signing since, unlike the others, it has few subordinating clauses (which is the real challenge in translating liturgical texts into ASL). Bear in mind that this is permitted only in the United Kingdom, where British Sign Language resembles English idiomatically (and thus is easier to sign from an English text), whereas American Sign Language does not.

    Frankly, oversimplified liturgical texts for the Deaf (and there are several in the United States) are unhelpful in that (1) it reduces the preparation that the signing priest needs to make in translating (2) to some Deaf people, such oversimplifications are taken to be condescending and (3) signed languages are, strictly speaking, do not have written forms, in which case a simplified liturgical text still “postpones” the problem of on-the-spot translating. (This is why, in my own preparation for Mass with the Deaf, I have begun to translate the collecta directly from Latin into ASL, thereby avoiding “leapfrogging” from Latin-to English-to ASL, during which too much valuable liturgical catechesis gets lost in translation.) I would add that (4) many of these texts reflects poor theology or at least unsound principles of Biblical translations (in the case of “lectionaries for the Deaf”).

    In my experience, many celebrants using sign language tend to “get it over with” in terms of conveying liturgical text in ASL instead of taking time to carefully prepare for the mediation of thoughtful prayer and sound catechesis that the Missal (or other liturgical books) enshrines; there is no substitute for cold, hard preparation. Holy Angels Church of the Deaf in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, to my mind, represents a near-ideal in Deaf liturgical praxis as the liturgy team meets for upwards three hours on Friday afternoons to prepare for the upcoming Sunday’s Mass.

    Fr Hysell

  7. Thanks for adding your insights, Fr Hysell, and expanding beyond reconciliation! We are largely on the same page. There’s much to discuss here but given time constraints and the nature of a blog post, I’ll limit my brief comments to Reconciliation.

    When I write of the need for English literacy, I had school-aged children in the past at oral only schools where sign was completely forbidden in mind. One historical source wrote about sisters at an oral school who would edit the confessions of students so the priest could understand them. How common this practice was, one can only speculate. Same with the experience of the Deaf man writing in the 1940s. In the present, the challenge of writing is found with Deaf immigrants for whom ASL is a second language and who did not learn English in their country of origin. There are also oral-only educated Deaf for whom the education system it didn’t work out well (starting in the 1920s-30s, hence not so recent). These are some of the populations I had in mind.

    As for access to a Deaf or signing priest for Reconciliation, I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I and the vast majority I’ve interviewed or conversed with have agreed that there’s a need for more signing Priests. But perhaps this perspective is relative to what one considers is “enough.” As a hearing person whose first language is english, I can go to frequent confession because I don’t have to drive an hour a half to a Deaf church or wait 6 months or more for a mission that may or may not happen in my city. One woman I know had to move of a diocese that had a thriving Deaf ministry because costs were too high for her to live on with SSI. With no car of her own, and no deaf ministry in her area, she gets to go to Church only when a friend drives 6 hours to and fro to take her. Having a signing priest in her diocese would certainly make a big difference. No one has used “starved” to describe their experiences but perhaps that is one way to interpret it. Other countries of course, have it worse.

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