One simple “Merry Christmas” and society as we know it totally transformed. Before cell phones acquired keyboards in 1992, Neil Papworth sent the first text message, typing “Merry Christmas” with his computer to his associate Richard Jarvis’ Vodafone. Several years later, text messaging became a staple means of communication. Very quickly, social networking took off to create vast digital highways connecting users and allowing the Church to share the gospel in ways never before deemed possible. While everyone seemed to benefit from the abundance of these cutting-edge developments, one group remained largely left out: the Deaf.
For a long time closed captioning has remained absent from the rich and numerous digital media outlets others enjoy. Even for those resources which finally acquired closed-captioning, the impact on the Deaf community remained minimal primarily because English is not the first language of the Deaf.
For most, the Deaf remain a forgotten community in the Church due to one simple reason: you can’t see deafness. Because of this, their presence remains quiet and mostly hidden, but not to all. Jehovah’s Witnesses quickly adapted themselves to accommodate the Deaf community and have proven very successful in sign language communication, building for themselves a significant Deaf contingent to their organization. Some Protestant denominations followed suit, leading to the rise of all-Deaf churches, prison ministries, partial Bible translations, and Scripture studies all absent of the richness of Catholic belief and history. By stark contrast, the National Catholic Office for the Deaf lists as a catechetical resource only one video series focused on the sacrament of confirmation. The Deaf Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia released the Religious Sign in American Sign Language app, the first of its kind, but even that only occurred within the last couple years.
On account of the persuasive measures of variant religious denominations, the scarcity of Catholic resources for the Deaf, and the decline of faith in society as a whole, members of the Deaf community have largely abandoned their Catholic faith or never received it at all. According to Jeremy Weber, in his 2010 article posted in Christianity Today International, less than one percent of Deaf people even attend church, Catholic or not.
As a chaplain to the Deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I am often asked why simply captioning Catholic resources already available isn’t enough to satisfy the needs of the Deaf community. Imagine yourself the only English speaker in your family. Your parents, your siblings, your neighbors and members of your church speak Russian and all the resources at your disposal focus on serving an exclusively Russian audience. The videos themselves have no sound, but at least they have a script scrolling across the bottom in Russian.
How would you feel? How would you feel if the Church’s “best” meant you needed to strain under the burden of a second language, sift through cultural nuances meant for a different people, and constantly alternate between looking at the visuals and reading the script, every time missing a piece of each? How many people would persevere under this model of catechesis? By now, the answer should be clear: few to none at all. And yet this is the experience of every Deaf Catholic.
Understanding Deaf Culture
From the perspective of society at large, the word “deaf” strictly means disability, impairment, the absence of what ought to be, but the Deaf disagree. Limiting the word “deaf” to the medical viewpoint fails to capture the rich beauty inherent in the word. For the Deaf community, “deaf” isn’t simply a medical reality, but a cultural one. Replete with their own language, art, expression, customs, values, and historical traditions, Deaf individuals proudly boast of their Deaf identity, and they do so with a capital “D”. “Deaf” is how they see the world, how they arrange their life, and how they share themselves. Ringing doorbells make lights flicker, morning alarm clocks vibrate mattresses, and social “good-byes” require at least an hour. In particular, however, art and expression remain the jewel of Deaf life.
For the Deaf, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that carries social merit. The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” goes a long way in American Sign Language. Seeing someone tell a story feels like watching a movie, and the more beautiful the signing, the more powerful the message. How much truer this becomes when a talented signer tells the gospel story. The account of the sinful woman in Luke’s Gospel, who bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears and washed them with her hair, penetrates the heart more immediately when the audience can see the anguish on her face and the love and humility with which she tenderly kisses the feet of her Savior. Such power and beauty becomes completely lost in the flatness of reading scrolling captions at the bottom of the screen … in a language that is not their primary.
The Mission of the Church
The event of the Incarnation stands at the center of the Church’s mind and heart. God became man in a particular time and at a particular place, so that he might communicate himself to us through our own language, customs, and traditions, borrowing what we value and using our experiences to reveal the Father to us. The Bride of Christ, in imitation of her savior, navigated land and sea for over two thousand years to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to every nation by adopting various aspects of each culture and using them to reveal Christ. One of the earliest and most famous examples of this comes from St. Paul’s speech about the “unknown god” in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34).
The first wave of millennials, of which I myself am a part, saw the introduction of picture text messages, Facebook, the iPod, YouTube, touch screen mobile devices, apps, and video calling. Since then, the focus of media platforms moved from radio and cable television to a digital one of high-quality videos and podcasts. For the Church, this meant a form of gospel proclamation not even St. Paul could have imagined … digital evangelization.
Very quickly, resources for Catholics multiplied in the form of YouTube videos, sacramental preparation series, catechetical podcasts, Catholic blogs and various scriptural and devotional apps. With a shepherd’s care, the American Church recognized a need for resources in Spanish for those who don’t know English or at best speak it as a second language. It’s time to show the same care for the Deaf community.
Today, in the digital age, society challenges the Church to again adopt new and creative ways to carry the Good News of Jesus Christ into the world. With such resources at her disposal, we can no longer accept the near total absence of resources for the Deaf. The poverty of Deaf catechesis cries out to the Church’s maternal heart to feed her children with the good milk of the gospel in a way that comprehends and highlights the richness of Deaf culture and elevates it to declare in powerful expression the person of Jesus Christ to the ninety-nine percent of Deaf people who’ve yet to meet him.
The question long held in the mind of catechists for the Deaf and the parents of Deaf children is simple: how? How, unless experts on Deaf culture and persons knowledgeable of the Church’s teachings work together to compose such ground-breaking resources accessible to various diocesan apostolates, parish leaders, and Deaf individuals, will the Deaf come to know Christ? Thankfully, Ascension wondered the same question, but this time there’s an answer.
Over the last two years, Ascension and the Deaf Apostolate of Philadelphia have collaborated to form Hands of Grace, a Deaf-oriented section of the wider Ascension company which adopts Deaf language and culture to share the Catholic Faith with Deaf individuals and their parish/diocesan leaders.
The first production of Hands of Grace focuses on the sacramental life of the Church and divides each sacrament into three brief videos. The first video highlights the scriptural foundation and patristic citations to identify the foundation of the Catholic belief in this particular sacrament. The second video addresses the teachings of the Church regarding the effects of each sacrament upon its recipient, and the third answers the question of how we live the graces received by that same sacrament.
Accompanied by a detailed workbook comprised of discussion questions, quotes from the saints and ecumenical councils of the Church, the Catechism, and interesting fun facts, this most recent Hands of Grace production serves as a tremendous resource for the Deaf community and upholds a great standard to which other resources should aspire.
We are a society that prides itself in our technological accomplishments and inclusive diversity. Yet, in the midst of these great aspects of American society the Deaf community seems left behind. It is the mission of the Church to reach all people whether rich or poor, healthy or ill, free or imprisoned, native or foreign. Ascension’s new Hands of Grace offering is a step in the right direction, a step toward giving the Deaf the recognition they deserve in our culture.
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A convert to the faith, Fr. Seán Loomis completed his seminary studies at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. After years of studying American Sign Language and engaging Deaf culture, in 2013, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput ordained Fr. Loomis to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where he currently serves as the chaplain to the Deaf Apostolate and Parochial Vicar of Annunciation B.V.M. parish. As servant to both the Deaf community and Annunciation parish, Fr. Loomis works to ensure full access to the riches of the Catholic Faith with the hope that all will come to know the joy of the gospel which he discovered himself as an adult.