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NEW YORK – Celebrating a Mass for the Uvalde community on the first night after the Robb Elementary School shooting, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller called the children in attendance to the front of the church to communicate with them directly, but didn’t receive any feedback.
At that moment, the archbishop of San Antonio, Texas, knew he needed a way to communicate with the children other than the spoken word. After asking the Holy Spirit for guidance he decided to try sign language, which he had taken up a few months earlier and knew only a few words.
García-Siller then started signing the children messages related to peace that they eventually mimicked. Days later at another special intention Mass following the May 24 shooting, García-Siller again called the children up to the front of the church, and taught them the words “peace,” “love,” and “Holy Spirit” in sign language.
“Sometimes we don’t know what to say, how to console people, express how we feel, and so sometimes we can just do the signs and live a day at a time,” García-Siller told Crux after the Mass.
García-Siller’s intention for learning sign language this past spring was to serve the archdiocese’s deaf community. As it turns out, it also helped him navigate multiple crises this summer.
First, it was the Uvalde shooting where 21 people were killed. Then in June, after 53 migrants were found dead in an abandoned tractor trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio, he used sign language to say words like “love” and “thank you” to the survivors he visited in the hospital.
Now, months after those tragedies, García-Siller continues to use and learn sign language. It’s something he expects will continue to be a part of Catholic life in the archdiocese for all parishioners.
“Not only for the deaf, but sometimes we don’t know how to communicate and sign language could be a great vehicle because it’s based in words and letters, but also with symbols, with signs, and we can connect in great ways,” García-Siller said. “It’s been a tremendous thing and I am very excited.”
“It has caused a very powerful reaction,” he continued. “The sense that we are communicating, that we are in touch, that in some way you’re building a bridge for people to express what they’re going through.”
The archbishop had the desire to learn sign language, recognizing that celebrations in the archdiocese often included interpreters for the deaf parishioners, and that “if we want to really include them, they need to know that I want to communicate with them more directly.”
“The motivation was the needs of the people and to communicate with them, and to understand them because understanding them makes it easier to communicate, and if they are speaking in sign language to me, if I don’t understand them it will not be a good service on my part,” García-Siller said.
When his sign language classes began the instructors were going to start by teaching him his name. He instead chose, somewhat providentially given future circumstances, to learn the word peace, explaining to Crux that he believes that his call is to be an instrument of peace.
Effective Sept. 25, Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church is the home parish for the deaf community in the archdiocese, where García-Siller and others will preach and minister. In announcing the designation in late August, the church’s pastor, Father José Ramón Pérez-Martínez said that by this, the church “intends to strengthen the accommodation and resources for the deaf community.”
For the rest of the archdiocese, García-Siller continues to explore when and how to appropriately incorporate sign language into Mass. He highlighted that it’s beneficial when engaging children, in moments where there is a dialogue or call and response, and during the homily.
He noted he has also seen the benefit of using sign language during a bilingual Mass, because it allows him to reach both the Spanish and English speaking communities, as well as the deaf community. It connects the parishioners, and he doesn’t have to repeat the same thing in three languages.
García-Siller emphasized, though, that the main objective with sign language is to serve the deaf community.
“The main point has to be it’s a language of people that we need to honor and serve,” García-Siller said. “That is your objective, and as a consequence it can build up unity — you can connect people in crisis.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg