By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Last Thursday, I was pleased to host a book signing at our Archdiocesan Office Center for Father Anthony Russo, a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the Redemptorists. Father Russo has written a book titled: “In Silent Prayer: A History of Ministry with the Deaf Community in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia” (Square One Publishers).
Father Russo, who has had some hearing impairment himself over the years, is certainly the ideal person to write this book because he has served the deaf and hard of hearing community in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for over forty years. I am also pleased to recall at this time another faithful Redemptorist in this apostolate, Father Russo’s predecessor, Father Stephen Landherr, who likewise spent many years of devoted service in this ministry.
It is interesting to note that the Deaf Apostolate in our Archdiocese is listed as being within the responsibility of the Secretariat for Evangelization. One of the marvelous accomplishments of our Deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese is that it makes it possible for those who are deaf and hard of hearing to participate fully in Archdiocesan and local Liturgies.
At most of the Liturgical celebrations that take place in our Cathedral, there is a very capable person, often a Religious Sister, signing for the deaf and hard of hearing who are present. I am so grateful to the Sisters who have been involved in this work for a very long time. They have also taught many seminarians, who have participated in the sign language classes held for many years at Saint Charles Seminary. Through their zeal, and that of Father Russo, a steady source of religious educators has been provided for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
One of the programs that is supported by the annual Catholic Charities Appeal is the Archbishop Ryan School for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children. They conduct a Total Communication Academy in Norwood, Delaware County and an Oral Academy in Havertown, also Delaware County.
As we have spoken so often about the dignity of the human person, we are reminded that our care and love for those with special challenges are ways in which we can proclaim that dignity. We know that Jesus showed a special love in the Gospels for anyone who had a physical challenge and the Church has always sought to follow His example. It was she who began the first hospitals to care for the sick and facilities to care for those struggling with a physical or mental challenge.
This special care which Jesus showed was particularly significant in the society in which He spent His early life. According to a common Jewish understanding at the time of our Lord, any kind of physical challenge was thought to be a punishment from God, either as a punishment for personal sin (cf. Job 4:7-8; 2 Maccabees 7:18) or as a punishment for the sins of parents, visited upon their children (cf. Tobit 3:3).
This is one of the reasons why those afflicted with leprosy were made to ring a bell at their approach and call out “unclean.” Not only was leprosy thought to be highly contagious, it was such a horrible disease that no one wanted to come near the leper, believing that he or she must have done something seriously wrong to receive such an affliction.
By Jesus’ words and example, He introduced an entirely new concept, which would culminate in His sanctification of suffering through His own Passion and Death. It is important to note that, while Jesus did perform physical miracles for some of those who had some handicap or challenge, He did not cure all who would have experienced these needs during His time on earth. If He had done so, our weak human nature would be quick to think that the removal of any challenge, pain or “difference” is the source of all happiness and fulfillment and we would wind up ignoring the deeper realities of sharing in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.
When asked what sin the man born blind must have committed or what sin his father must have committed, Jesus gave a mysterious answer: “It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him” (John 9:3).
We say that those words are mysterious and yet, all around us we see the many blessings that very often come to those with some physical or mental challenge and those who have relationships with them.
In the deaf and hard of hearing community, we know there is a beautiful unity and sense of community among those who are deaf or hard of hearing. This is especially found among the young people of this community. Likewise, those who have a family member who lives with some challenge, such as hearing impairment, tend to be more generous and more aware of the needs of others.
The title of Father Russo’s book, “In Silent Prayer,” reminds us that those with hearing or speech challenges are not confronted with some of the distractions that the rest of us experience in trying to pray or to reflect in the midst of a very noisy world. His book also relates the many examples of love and devotion, according to the example of Jesus, that have been manifested in this deaf and hard of hearing community.
Religious Sisters were pioneers in working in this community
One of the pioneering bishops in the midwestern part of our country was Bishop Joseph Rosati (1789-1843). During his time as Bishop of St. Louis, he invited the Sisters of Saint Joseph to come to the United States from France so they could work among the deaf and hard of hearing in the extensive territory of his diocese.
Responding to his request, Mother St. John Fournier and Mother Celestine Pommerel arrived in St. Louis in 1836. They had studied the advanced techniques that were being taught in France for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing and they brought this knowledge with them to the United States. Mother St. John Fournier came to Philadelphia from St. Louis in 1847, and thus began over a century and a half of ministry among the hearing impaired in this Archdiocese.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary continue to have a special interest in this apostolate, the goals of which are to foster faith and provide full access into the life of the Church.
In Silent Prayer traces the history of this special ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Through insightful text, as well as historical documents and photographs, Father Russo not only tells the story of the great men and women who have provided this important service, but also looks forward to the coming years and considers how this service can be further shaped and improved. Specific examples of how to establish an effective ministry are included along with a discussion of the ideas and attitudes necessary to effect change and progress in ministry today” (Book description, Square One Publishers, www.squareonepublishers.com/titles).
Many specialized apostolates throughout the Archdiocese
Although I have taken the opportunity given by the publication of Father Russo’s book to write about the Deaf Apostolate, I also want to recognize again, as I have on other occasions, all of the specialized ministries and apostolates within our Archdiocese. They are part of the consistent ethic of life which the Church presents to us. They are also a continuation of the tender love which Jesus showed toward those with special physical challenges.
Father Russo has documented the beautiful history of the apostolate to the deaf and hard of hearing in this Archdiocese and we are very grateful to him. We also give thanks to all of those who have shown the love of Jesus toward anyone with a special challenge, whose names are not known or recorded. Their names are recorded in the book of life (cf. Revelation 20:11-15).
November 27, 2008