Saturday, April 22, 2006

Full, Conscious, Active Participation: The New Frontier

A couple weeks back, I got a very touching e.mail from a deaf priest who's been able to minister full-time to the hearing-impaired community. In a time when ministry has become ever more arduous to carry out and takes a toll on many a good and faithful servant, it was wonderful to hear from someone who's able to experience the utmost fulfillment and has the full support of his bishop and diocese.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council's document on the reform of the liturgy, declared that in its mandate of fittingly celebrating the "memorial of [Christ's] death and resurrection," "The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ's faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration" (48).

Going forward from this statement -- a break from the past which has not been fully heeded, for one reason or another -- I've seen priests and people with various physical limitations be able to enter fully into the mystery of redemption which the Mass celebrates. It's a beautiful thing, it resonates with people, and it's one of the fruits of the liturgical renewal which don't often go remarked on....

The church's outreach to deaf Catholics, however, is still coming up to speed -- and bearing good fruit. It's highlighted in today's New York Times:

"Attending Mass with a deaf priest who uses sign language is more inspiring than an interpreted Mass," Ms. Lomastro, who now volunteers as a lector at the deaf Mass, wrote in an e-mail message. "When Father Bruce signs, it is coming from his inner self."

Father Bruce is one of seven deaf priests ministering in the United States, said the Rev. Thomas Coughlin, head of the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate in Hayward, Calif. Four deaf seminarians are studying to be priests, the most ever at one time, according to the National Catholic Office for the Deaf.

The four seminarians, along with an increase in lay participation, show signs of growth in a small Catholic community that has long struggled with its identity.

Only about 4 percent of deaf Catholic adults nationwide attend Mass, said Arvilla Rank, executive director of the Office for the Deaf. That is largely because the experience of attending a spoken Mass falls flat, and for some a signed Mass does not adequately convey inflections and nuances of a speaking priest's homily. A speaking priest, deaf people say, cannot bridge the gap beyond language and into deaf culture.

"It's really kind of boring to sit there on the other end and not understand, to be missing information," Connie Wild, director of the deaf ministry in the Diocese of Orange County, Calif., said. "There's an opinion of, Why go? The relationship with a deaf priest is one of sameness, of similar experiences and an understanding of culture."

Deaf ministry is steadily growing. About half of all dioceses offer deaf-ministry programs. Most have Masses interpreted into American Sign Language. Some larger dioceses have hearing priests who are fluent in American Sign Language sign a weekly Mass.

The biggest change, those who work in deaf ministry said, is that more deaf lay people are attending church and becoming involved in parish life.

With everything else going on right now, it's nice to have a reminder that there ain't nothin' can stop the Big Tent.