ASL Mass at Saint John's to Welcome Deaf Catholics
The ASL Mass is historic, according to Deacon Thomas Smith, director of the archdiocesan Pastoral Ministry with the Deaf, because for many decades-under the leadership of Pastor Emeritus Rev. Msgr. John P. Hourihan-Saint John Parish's Catholic Deaf ministry flourished.
The 1 p.m. Mass on Sept. 7 will be celebrated by newly ordained Father Pedro Bismarck Chau, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Parish in Garfield. Fr. Bismarck, a Nicaraguan native who was ordained at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart on May 24 (see The Catholic Advocate, May 21), has a deaf sister. He recently completed conversational and liturgical ASL training course at Seton Hall University, South Orange, which was taught by Deacon Smith.
The fact it will be an ASL Mass is significant. There is, Deacon Smith stressed, a major difference for the deaf community between an "interpreted" Mass and ASL Mass. At interpreted masses, which are celebrated throughout the archdiocese at a number of parishes and will continue in conjunction with the ASL Mass at Saint John's, what is being said by the priest is being conveyed to the Deaf in the pews by a third party-the sign language interpreter.
Unfortunately, Deacon Smith explained, "this is not direct participation in the Mass," as deaf people find it difficult to "completely focus on the actions and words of the priest, because they are trying to see and understand the ASL interpreter."
By contrast, a deaf person can participate fully in the Mass by following what the priest is signing in ASL. This represents a direct connection between parishioner and priest-no third-party interpreter. Instead of trying to keep up with the pace of English-the dominant "language" during an interpreted Mass-the prayers and readings of the liturgy at an ASL Mass are presented in a "pace and visual style that are more natural and understandable to the Deaf," he explained. The priest or presiding deacon leads the Mass and deaf Catholics will sign all the readings and petitions, as well as lead all the responses.
In addition to the use of hands to convey words and phrases, Deacon Smith said the nuances of body movement and facial expressions also are essential components of ASL communication. Although the signed Mass will be silent, Deacon Smith pointed out hearing people (family members and ASL students) are "always welcome" since there will be "voicing for the signing impaired."
Deacon Smith is "joyfully anticipating" the ASL Mass at Saint John's, stressing it will be "creating access to Sunday liturgy for a group of alienated Catholics." The program at Saint John represents a desperately needed outreach to serve the spiritual needs of hearing-impaired Catholics. Deacon Smith said only 2 percent of deaf Catholics worldwide attend church services. The primary reasons for this dismal statistic, he explained, is the perception among the Deaf that the Mass is "a hearing event" based solely on spoken words and written text and therefore not for them. In effect, this emotional barrier makes the Deaf feel excluded from worship.
Inspired by his beloved sister, Fr. Bismarck felt compelled to learn ASL, which is now part of his ministry. He remembers vividly and poignantly when he was 12 years old watching TV with his sister at home when she asked him: if God is love why did He make me deaf? He could not think of an answer, Fr. Bismarck recalled. Years later, Fr. Bismarck noticed that his sister's Baptist congregation had a vibrant ministry for the deaf. "I did not see much of that in our Church," he said. Now, with his knowledge of ASL, Fr. Bismarck "wants to bring Christ to the Deaf."
A social program especially designed for the Deaf will follow the ASL masses at Saint John's. In addition to fellowship and recreational opportunities, the Catholic Deaf community will be offered a central parish location to call their own, from which to expand their outreach, creating stewardship and catechetical activities based on Deaf culture and language.
Socialization, Deacon Smith emphasized, "is a big part of the Deaf culture." That is so because in the hearing world, deaf persons are often "ignored, patronized and misunderstood." But among others who share their language and religious values, he said, they feel "totally affirmed and accepted."
Due to the centralized location and excellent roadway and public transportation access of Saint John-the oldest parish in New Jersey founded in 1826-Deacon Smith expects attendance from deaf persons from across the river in New York and as far away as Trenton.
Two veteran church interpreters share Deacon Smith's enthusiasm for the ASL Mass. Mary Jo Burke Manshach, who has two deaf sisters, has been interpreting since the early 1980s. She sees the Mass and social program as "wonderful" for the deaf community that will help them combat isolation.
Both of Fran McCarthy's parents were deaf and wanted to attended services at Saint John's Parish over the years. She also has focused on the opportunity for increased liturgical participation by the Catholic Deaf community.