INDIANAPOLIS (CNS) — The conversation before Mass was boisterous — words of welcome, friends greeting each other, catching up, talking of their excitement about the upcoming Mass and presentation.
The volume would have raised a racket — had it been verbal.
But the chatter was communicated in a flurry of fingers using American Sign Language.
The exchange took place at St. Matthew the Apostle Church in Indianapolis on a recent Wednesday, when the Indianapolis Archdiocese’s Office of Catechesis arranged for a special Mass, dinner and talk for the archdiocese’s deaf community.
Celebrating the Mass was Father Michael Depcik, who is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales and ministers in the Archdiocese of Detroit and who was born deaf. About 35 people were in attendance.
At a dinner afterward, he spoke on “Celebrating the Year of Mercy.” Both the Mass and the presentation were entirely signed — a rare treat for deaf Catholics.
Erin Jeffries, archdiocesan coordinator of catechesis for those with special needs, hopes the evening is just the beginning of building up the archdiocese’s efforts to meet the needs of the deaf community.
“We’re trying to build up our group of Mass interpreters. Right now, there are only a few who are comfortable signing Masses, and they get called on quite a bit,” she said.
Jeffries’ office is trying to remedy the situation with a workshop series “to help people become more comfortable in signing in religious settings,” she explained in an interview with The Criterion, the archdiocesan newspaper.
The first training session focused on “getting to know the liturgy, getting to know some of the basic liturgical signs and prayers, and really conveying the story, the message in ASL.”
The difference between interpreting other languages and interpreting American Sign Language is that “interpretation is not verbatim,” said Jeffries.
“You have to consider how to build a scene and present the story visually,” continued. “When you tell a story by voice, it’s very linear. When your focus is visual, you really have to develop the scene and decide which points are most important so the message doesn’t get lost. ASL really is its own language. You’re not just conveying word for word.”
Jeffries also hopes to find ways to build the size of the deaf Catholic community.
“We’re working to form a regular schedule of Masses that are at least interpreted, with some community time afterward, maybe a pitch-in to help bring the community together,” she said.
“We’re also looking forward to the future, and exploring ways to help make the sacraments more readily available for deaf Catholics.”
Through interpreter Joyce Ellinger, a member of St. Matthew Parish, Father Depcik spoke with The Criterion about the importance to deaf Catholics of having a priest who knows American Sign Language.
“That’s where the deaf can have direct involvement in the church, direct communication with the priest as opposed to (communicating) through an interpreter,” he said.
Father Depcik is pastor of St. John’s Deaf Center on the east side of Detroit, and he offers a signed Mass each weekend at Our Lady of Loretto Church on the city’s west side. He is responsible for the deaf ministry throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit. He also posts ASL-signed videos — with voiceovers — of weekly homilies, prayers, interviews, talks and more on his blog, “Fr. MD’s Kitchen Table,” at www.frmd.org.
At the most basic level, ASL-signing priests are necessary for providing sacraments to the deaf, he said. Take confession, for instance.
“Many deaf people have not been to confession in years and years,” Father Depcik noted. “Because they do not want to use an interpreter in the confessional, many deaf people will write (their sins) in confession. But English is their second language, so they don’t feel comfortable with that (process).
“And there are a lot of nuances in the confessional. You need a signing priest to do that. And anointing for the sick — people who are deaf need access (to a signing priest).”
Father Depcik noted things a parish can do to make it more welcoming to deaf Catholics, even if the priest does not sign, such as decreasing the amount of music time during Masses interpreted for the deaf. He also stressed the importance of good lighting “because deaf people are visual — they depend on their vision, so they have to be able to see things clearly.”
It also is important to have seating for the deaf up front where they can see the altar and the interpreter, he said.
“Sometimes the deaf people are invisible, and it’s easy for them to be overlooked,” noted Father Depcik. “Other groups like Hispanics, they’re such a huge group. Or the disabled or the blind — (their needs are) so recognizable. But the deaf, it’s not a visibly recognizable group.
“A lot of priests say they don’t have any deaf in their parish. Well, they probably don’t see that they’re there, compared with other groups.”
But they may in fact truly not be there — at the Mass, anyway. According to Father Depcik, 96 percent of deaf people do not attend church because of communication issues and the lack of communication accessibility.
“For deaf people, a lot of time their experience with religion is negative,” he said. “They’ve been taken to a church with no (ASL) accessibility. They just sit through the service or they simply get left out” of the family’s faith participation.
Having an entire Mass interpreted with American Sign Language was such a joy for the deaf Catholics attending the Mass Father Depcik celebrated at St. Matthew the Apostle Church.
Roger and Christine Kraft are deaf members of the northeast side parish. Having a deaf priest was “awesome,” said Roger through the interpretation of Diane Hazel Jones, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis.
“If the (person) can sign, you feel an automatic connection,” he explained. “You understand what’s happening rather than having to go through a third party. On a typical Sunday, it almost feels like you’re an outsider coming in. But tonight I felt like we were one community.”
“I go to church every Sunday, but the regular words in the Mass tonight made me well up,” she said. “I was teary-eyed because it was so much more powerful.
Hoefer is a reporter at The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.