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May 16, 2007

Golden days for our Catholic deaf community

From: Catholic Sentinel - Portland,OR,USA - May 16, 2007

Archbishop John Vlazny

This coming weekend our Catholic deaf community here in western Oregon will be celebrating fifty years of faith and growth. I have been invited to preside at the celebration of the Eucharist at St. Cyril Church in Wilsonville on Sunday, May 20, to commemorate the occasion and to thank God for the good work of so many people on behalf of our deaf sisters and brothers these past fifty years. I am especially grateful to Sister Linda Roby, BVM, the Director of our Office of Catholic Deaf Ministry and her two associate priest-chaplains, Father Pat Walsh, Pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Sandy, and Father Dan Adams, Pastor in Wilsonville, where we shall be gathering on May 20.

Why have deaf ministry here in this archdiocese? The reason is simple. We want to do our best to enable persons who are deaf to participate fully in the life of the church. With that in mind, our Catholic deaf ministry strives to serve the spiritual needs of our sisters and brothers who are deaf, develops and supports lay leadership among the deaf, provides information and resources for parishes with deaf parishioners and advocates for them within the church and society. Presently regular liturgies are scheduled with the deaf community in Portland at the Paulist Center next to St. Philip Neri Parish, St. Cyril Church in Wilsonville, Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Oswego, St. Peter Church in Eugene and Shepherd of the Valley Parish in Medford. On occasion Sister Linda arranges for an interpreted Mass in the Salem area as well.

One of the first names associated with Catholic deaf ministry here in the Archdiocese of Portland was Father Robert P. O’Hara, the nephew of the late Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, an archdiocesan priest who eventually became Bishop of Great Falls and Kansas City-St. Joseph. For many years he served as Director of the Apostolate to the Deaf here in the Archdiocese of Portland. After his untimely death in 1968, Father O’Hara was succeeded by Fathers Ervin Vandehey and Neil Brogan who served as co-directors of the Apostolate to the Deaf. Shortly thereafter a seminary deacon by the name of Patrick Walsh was sent to study at Galludet College in Washington, D.C., a famous school for the deaf, for four months. These studies were a preparation for pastoral service to the Catholic deaf community which Father Walsh continues to this day.

Then in 1974 the position of director shifted from clergy to laity. Sister Joan Gloistein, CSJ, became the director in 1974. She was succeeded by our present director, Sister Linda Roby, BVM, in 1978. She was replaced in 1982 by Paul Lipscomb for six years. Then Sister Judith Desmarais assumed leadership for deaf ministries and finally in 1991 Sister Linda Roby returned and has stayed as the director these many years.

Arvilla Rank, Executive Director of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf (NCOD), reports that only about 4 percent of deaf Catholic adults nationwide attend Mass. For these sisters and brothers the experience of attending a spoken Mass falls flat. For others a signed Mass doesn’t adequately convey inflections and nuances of a speaking priest’s homily. This is obviously a great challenge for all of us who want to be as inclusive as possible in our evangelizing outreach.

Presently there are actually seven deaf priests who minister in the United States. Reportedly there are also four deaf seminarians studying to be priests. These are significant signs of the growth in a small Catholic community of those who cannot hear. About half the dioceses in the United States offer deaf-ministry programs. Most, like our own, have Masses interpreted into American Sign Language. The biggest change here and elsewhere is that more deaf lay people are attending church and becoming involved in parish life.

Our deaf sisters and brothers unfortunately have many negative experiences in the hearing environment. This happens especially at moments which are crucial for family life. One well-educated deaf person from a hearing family in Western Europe made this observation: “You might say that as a little child I was part of the family in the same way as a pet. It seems hard to say that, but yet I think it was like that. People who love their pet, take care of it very well, but they do not have conversation with them. Surely no deep conversation. They do not give information to the animal.” Another deaf man who grew up without school education was the only deaf person in his family in a small village in Nepal. He made a similar statement: “I have to say sincerely that there were times that I felt myself more a pet than a member of the family. Since sign language was still underdeveloped when I was a child, good communication between me and my relatives lacked. They gave me food and clothes, and… I know they took care of me, but I knew also that something was lacking in our relationship.”

Our concern as disciples in mission together for people with any disability, including those who are deaf, reflects the ministry of the Lord Jesus himself. When John the Baptist’s disciples approached him about the authenticity of his mission, Jesus responded with words similar to those of the prophet Isaiah, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, dead men are raised to life, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” These are the very people who became witnesses for Jesus once they were healed.

On the most basic level, our church serves the needs of those with disabilities by defending their rights. Affirming the rights of people with disabilities is never enough. As a church we must actively work to make these rights very real in our contemporary culture. These folks have a claim to our respect because they are persons, because they are members of the Body of Christ, and because they contribute to our society by their activities.

As we celebrate this 50th anniversary of the deaf community here in western Oregon, we can be proud of the tradition of ministry which our church has to people with disabilities. As the American bishops reminded us back in 1978, no one would deny that every person has the right to develop his or her potential to the fullest. It is the sincere hope and prayer of all of us on this anniversary weekend that this right will be realized in the lives of our deaf sisters and brothers of this local church.

© 2007 Catholic Sentinel