Diversity

Signs of the Times: Deaf Ministry Making Catholicism Accessible

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SAN DIEGO — In Matthew’s Gospel, after sharing the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells the crowd, “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

For millions of Americans who struggle with significant hearing loss or deafness, that might be easier said than done. But San Diego’s Deaf Catholic ministry is doing its part to facilitate their full participation in the life of the Church.

The local Deaf Catholic community is currently served by a chaplain, Deacon Gerardo Marquez, and 14 American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters. Six parishes in the diocese currently offer ASL interpreted Masses: St. Rose of Lima Parish, Chula Vista; Mission San Diego and St. John the Evangelist parishes, San Diego; Guardian Angels Parish, Santee; Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, Ramona; and St. Gregory the Great Parish, Scripps Ranch.

Celia C.J. Solis, who assists Deacon Marquez and serves as an ASL interpreter at St. Rose of Lima Parish, told The Southern Cross that only 4 percent of Deaf Catholic adults nationwide attend Mass. She explained that liturgies, sacramental preparation and religious education classes can be challenging for Catholics who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Those sentiments were echoed by Analicia Lucas, a volunteer ASL interpreter at St. John the Evangelist Parish.

“If there is no interpreter, they have no opportunity to respond with the congregation, to hear the homily or to know each part of the Mass,” she said, adding that confession can be rendered impossible in the absence of an ASL-fluent priest.

Deacon Bob Ekhaml, who currently assists at signed Masses celebrated by Father Alex De Paulis at Mission San Diego, described deafness as “an invisible handicap” that often “can go unnoticed” in parish communities.

He noted that many Deaf Catholics travel great distances to attend interpreted Masses. Reflecting on their dedication, he added, “Imagine requiring hearing people to do this!”

The interpreted Mass at Mission San Diego, celebrated every fourth Sunday and followed by a potluck, is attended by Deaf Catholics from several San Diego parishes as well as others from Riverside, Temecula and Murrieta.

Father Brian Hayes, pastor of St. Catherine Laboure Parish and a former chaplain to the Deaf Catholic community in San Diego, is deaf in one ear, the result of a bout of spinal meningitis that almost claimed his life when he was about 4 months old. When he was 4 years old, he squeezed a rubber dog toy close to his good ear to hear what it sounded like; that childhood mistake impacted his hearing in that ear as well, and he now wears a hearing aid.

Though Father Hayes considers himself part of “the hearing world” and did not learn ASL until he was appointed chaplain to Deaf Catholics shortly after his ordination, his own hearing disability has helped him empathize with how “disconnected” the hard-of-hearing often feel.

“Because they can’t hear, they often feel marginalized. And that is our call, to reach out to those on the margins,” he said.

Isaac Argüelles, an ASL interpreter at St. Rose of Lima Parish, was raised by deaf parents. He told The Southern Cross that, when ASL interpretation for the liturgy is not available, many Deaf Catholics might be tempted to seek a “more inclusive” faith community, even if it is outside the Catholic Church.

Argüelles recounted how his parents, on their wedding day in Mexico, stood before the priest without knowing what was being said. When they renewed their vows on their 25th anniversary, Argüelles was there to interpret for them.

“Personally,” he said, “knowing that my parents and other Deaf parishioners can ‘see’ the Good News has been very rewarding.”

Scott Baughman, secretary for the Catholic Deaf Community of St. Rose of Lima Parish, was born profoundly deaf in both ears. He said deaf people often feel “lost” and lamented that many Deaf Catholics are “not able to keep in touch with Catholic faith and beliefs.”

Marie L. Diso is determined not to allow her 10-year-old deaf son to fall into that category. She learned ASL a decade ago after finding out about her son’s hearing loss and now serves as an interpreter at St. Rose of Lima’s signed Masses.

“A ministry to Deaf Catholics is so important for Michael,” she said. “It enables him to understand Catholicism in his language and gives him the sense of belonging in the Church and community.”

Diso added, “The most rewarding part of being involved with the Deaf ministry is the love, support and faith we all share within the Deaf community. I feel accepted even though I’m hearing.”

Alma C. Delgado has also found the parish’s Deaf community to be a welcoming place. Her 7-year-old daughter, Genesis, has Down syndrome. Though the child’s hearing is not impaired, she said, Genesis has delayed speech and prefers “to express, communicate and praise the Lord using her tiny hands.”

Sabrina Vieira de Vasconcelos has served as a substitute ASL interpreter at her home parish, St. Gregory the Great, and others for the past five years. She identified the Deaf Catholic community as “a minority that suffers discrimination for having a different communication mode, a different language and culture.” Stressing the importance of integrating them into parish life, she said, “I hope to see deaf people empowered, with access to weekly Mass, taking responsibilities within the Church and within the deaf ministry itself.”

Amy L. Juleson, coordinator of Deaf ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish, was raised by deaf parents and described Deaf Catholics as “the forgotten.”

“The Church is instituted by Christ to bring all to the embrace of God,” said Juleson, for whom ASL is her first language, “and we clearly have a role in reaching out to the lowly and the brokenhearted.”

Among other things, the Deaf ministry at St. John the Evangelist Parish provides interpretation for all Masses on holy days of obligation and for sacramental preparation classes, organizes annual retreats and biannual opportunities to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation in ASL, and holds community gatherings for both social and educational purposes.

Because Juleson performs her ministry as a volunteer, she has to organize fundraisers or pay out of pocket for all of the services it provides.

Juleson said her ministry wasn’t something she planned; all she had to do was say yes to God’s invitation.

“If we are truly open to loving our neighbor, the Deaf, [God] will provide us the tools, the understanding, the language, but especially the love in order to grow stronger in that one body of Christ,” she said. “We shouldn’t look for reasons to walk away or push the community off on someone else. We all have to take a part in welcoming and pursuing relationships with one another.”

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