NEW YORK – Anna Wade often sits in a church pew on Sunday and “kind of spaces out a little bit” until it’s time for communion, and then, she said, “that’s it.”
Wade’s lack of attention, though, has nothing to do with the Mass itself. It’s because she’s deaf, and the church she attends doesn’t have an American Sign Language interpreter – a problem she said exists throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, where she lives, and a problem that others say exists in dioceses and churches across the country.
“I feel frustrated because I need spiritual support, but it’s not there,” Wade told Crux. “At the church, it just doesn’t give me any inspiration or anything. I just feel like it’s a decline of my feeling and my connection with the church because of that.”
Wade said that she persists in attending Mass because she “wants to have communion with Jesus.”
The National Catholic Office for the Deaf estimates that 96 percent of deaf Catholics in the United States are unchurched. The homepage of the organization’s website lists 14 Sunday Masses and one Saturday Mass that have an ASL interpreter and are available to livestream.
Father Mike Depcik, a deaf priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit who ministers to deaf Catholic communities nationwide, told Crux that there’s a correlation between those two statistics, explaining that the lack of accessibility in churches for deaf Catholics leads many in the deaf community to leave the church.
“The deaf need a priest who knows [ASL],” Depcik said. “Most dioceses do not have priests for the deaf, so the deaf don’t have general access to the sacraments.”
Challenges for Wade and other deaf Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati were expressed in two Synod on Synodality listening sessions that had ASL interpreters. The archdiocese’s final report – posted online in late April – specifically highlights the challenge for deaf Catholics to participate in confession when there isn’t a priest who can sign.
The church allows deaf parishioners to participate in confession through writing, or with an interpreter present, but Wade and others say neither is ideal.
Noelle Collis DeVito, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Office for Persons with Disabilities associate director, acknowledged the broad needs for deaf Catholics in the archdiocese. She told Crux that addressing these needs is a priority for her office – established two years ago – while the archdiocese works through an initiative that starts in July to consolidate its 213 parishes into 50-plus parish families throughout the archdiocese.
“Our hope is that … we’re going to be able to do some liturgical minister training where we help our ushers, Eucharistic ministers, and our lectors know what they need to be doing to properly meet the needs of people in our parish,” DeVito said. “But we’re also going to try and train the parish staff on how to invite people with disabilities to actually serve those roles themselves.”
She added that her office is working on a deaf ministry page on the archdiocesan website, and has applied for a $100,000 grant to help develop “a very vibrant deaf ministry in the archdiocese that’s self-sustaining” that includes training priests and seminarians in ASL. Starting this fall, the archdiocesan seminary will offer ASL as a course, as well.
DeVito, who serves on the National Catholic Partnership on Disability Council on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, noted that her office was aware of these needs before the synod meetings, but they “wanted to make sure that it was in the notes from the synod because it’s not just a problem in our archdiocese; it’s a problem across the entire country.”
A US Church ‘deaf to the deaf people’
Last week, Depcik led a two-day retreat for the deaf community in the Archdiocese of San Antonio. He takes this kind of trip every couple of months to different places to lead Masses, retreats, and confessions for deaf Catholics. In general, he tries to travel at least once a month to areas drivable from the archdiocese, and he more frequently makes shorter trips to Ohio.
Depcik said he makes the trips to “keep supporting” deaf Catholics throughout the country who don’t have a signing priest, as well as the pastoral workers who work with the deaf. He also persists with these efforts because “it’s his calling.”
“It’s been a struggle for many years, but inside I still have this desire to help people understand and appreciate the Catholic faith because I really believe in this faith and I wish the Catholic Church would do more for us,” Depcik said.
It’s also in-part through these travels that he’s able to recognize the need that exists. Depcik said change needs to start at the diocesan level. First, with more seminaries offering ASL classes for seminarians to learn the language so more services can be offered. Second, with bishops becoming more aware of the need that exists in each of their dioceses so they can react accordingly with additional pastoral workers and resources.
“Since deafness is an invisible disability, some bishops don’t realize there are deaf people in their dioceses and so it’s important to educate the bishops on the need for deaf ministry,” Depcik said.
Mary O’Meara, the Archdiocese of Washington Office of Deaf and Disabilities Ministry executive director, boiled the need in the U.S. Catholic Church related to deaf Catholics down to a need of an “understanding of deaf culture” and for a greater “fluency in American Sign Language for deaf Catholics to be able to truly be full and active participants in parish communities and have full access to the sacraments.”
The National Catholic Office for the Deaf is one resource that exists for deaf Catholics that works to raise awareness, encourage deaf parishioners’ involvement in ministry, and share pastoral training resources for those that work with deaf parishioners.
Bishop Steven Raica of Birmingham, the episcopal representative of the organization, told Crux that the need for more priests who can sign and resources for deaf Catholics exist, but likened the challenge to that of meeting the needs of other communities in a diocese.
“I think in some ways we need more, but I’m in a diocese here where we have a growing Hispanic population and we’re scrambling for priests to have those languages also,” Raica said.
“The deaf community is a language barrier, so what we’re looking at is how do we connect and make visible our relationship with Jesus in this way in the sacraments both in terms of Mass, and then also in terms of the sacraments,” he continued.
Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, the episcopal moderator of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, told Crux that the need for greater pastoral services for the deaf Catholic community came up in diocesan listening sessions prior to the synod. Burbidge added that he “would be surprised” if the need didn’t extend throughout the U.S. Catholic Church, and expects it will appear regularly in diocesan synod reports because, “God’s people are spread out.”
The bishop said the problem may come down to a lack of awareness, but emphasized the importance of the church embracing this ministry, and making sure the sacraments are available.
“This really comes under who we are as a church. A church that lives the Gospel of Life, celebrates that all life is sacred, and as children of God we’re beloved and that includes all persons,” Burbidge said. “Especially in the sacrament of reconciliation you need a priest who is available to communicate, to provide that encounter, and that’s something that we’re going to have to invest our resources both financially in the training, but also in personnel.”
He also advocated for more involvement of deaf and hard-of-hearing parishioners in ministerial roles, saying that “it should be a goal … that these beautiful ministries of proclaiming God’s word be open to all peoples and those who are impaired in any way should not be excluded.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg