Deaf

Parish Diary

Peter J. Daly

2/8/99

 

Holy Hands

 

            On Sunday mornings our eight o'clock mass is signed for the deaf.  Actually, I think it is more appropriate to say that it is interpreted for the deaf.

            From where I sit in the sanctuary the interpreter has her back to me most of the time.   I often notice at that mass that people are watching her instead of me.  That is OK.  In some ways, signed language is more expressive than spoken language.  Especially when the hands and arms are used to describe the glory of God or the concepts of praise and wonder.  If I could, I'd watch it too.  Human beings have many forms of language, but this one is beautiful to watch.

            Recently we had a tragic funeral at our parish for a young man who was deaf.    The priest who directs our Catholic Deaf Center came to preside at the mass.  Much of the congregation was deaf.

            Two thinks struck me. 

First, the celebrant signed the prayers before he spoke them.  For a little while this gave us hearing people a little taste of what it must feel like to be deaf and function in a hearing world.  We were always a second or two behind the sign language.  I had the feeling that I was missing something, not knowing  the signs.  It also made me realize how hard it must be to try to keep up with a rapid fire speech.  When I preached the homily, I was aware that I usually go too fast for the interpreter.  When spoken slowly, whether in sign or voice, a few words can have greater impact than many.

            Second, I was struck by the level of concentration that sign language takes.  The deaf community cannot afford to let its mind wander.  They have to stay focused or they will loose the train of thought much more easily.  I mentioned this to our presider after the mass and he said, "A one hour mass in sign language is more exhausting than a three hour mass in voice, because of the level of concentration it requires."

 I have one friend, from my lawyer days, who is deaf.  Her name is Bonnie Ryan.  She is a lawyer in Minnesota now.   Bonnie is one of those remarkable people who crosses flawlessly over from the deaf to the hearing world and back again. She functions well in most circumstances by reading lips flawlessly.  She has made me aware of important etiquette.  Never talk behind someone's back, literally or figuratively.  It is not right to say things when she can't see you.  She needs to see the face of the person speaking.  She too concentrates very hard.  When you speak to someone who reads lips, you have the sense that they are really are listening.   

            Over the years I have not had much contact with the deaf community.  But having one of our masses interpreted for the deaf has opened up my awareness a bit.

            For one thing, I have realized that just like with the Spanish community, if we provide for worship in the language of the deaf, they will come.  Deaf people are looking for communities that are aware of their existence and willing to accomodate.

            In recent years we have come to take it for granted that every church should have ramps, wheel chair accessible doors and bathrooms.  We don't think that this is an unusual or necessary expense, even if there are very few people who actually need them.  (In my parish we have two people who regularly come to mass in wheel chairs).  Why not the same for the hearing impaired that we do for the mobility impaired?

            Certainly it was part of the life and ministry of Jesus, He who touched the ears of the deaf man and loosed his tongue in speech.  By speaking the language of signs, by lifting up holy hands in words of prayer, we say what Jesus said, "Ephphrata (be openned)."