By Allison Sturm
“Let us remain with Christ — abiding in Christ — and let us always try to be one with him. Let us follow him; let us imitate him in his movement of love, in his going forth to meet humanity. Let us go forth and open doors. Let us have the audacity to mark out new paths for proclaiming the Gospel.” — Pope Francis, “The Church of Mercy”
“During my deacon year I had the privilege to study for two weeks at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.” relatesd Father Bill Meininger, pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Culver. “I completed the coursework for Level 1 ASL and returned to the diocese to complete my summer assignment at Sacred Heart Parish in Warsaw. In the following weeks, I was approached by the warden of the local county jail, which was located just a few blocks from the parish. She explained to me that they had a deaf man there who had been incarcerated there for several weeks. Unfortunately, no one at the jail could communicate with him except through writing, which can be incredibly cumbersome and limiting.
“While the man was not a Catholic, the warden asked if I could stop by and visit him,” Father Meininger continued. “I met with this man the next day, and while my skills in ASL are very limited, we were able to carry on a conversation about family, how he had grown up, how he ended up where he was and what he hoped for his future. I was humbled by the experience, for here was a man who was pouring out his interior self to a complete stranger; but because I was willing to try my best and accept my limitations in the communication process, it was as if we were old friends. While I never saw this man again (he was soon transferred to another facility), I will always remember how the simplest and smallest acts of kindness and stretching ourselves can have the greatest effect on the life of another.”
The patron saint for the deaf and hard-of-hearing is St. Francis de Sales. His desire for others to know God inspired him to devise a sign language to teach a deaf man about Jesus so that he could receive holy Communion. It is with the same desire that the Ministry for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, under the Secretariat for Evangelization in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, wishes to reach the deaf community in the diocese — even if it is just one person at a time. “We often ask ‘who’s missing at the table’ because we know that when people are missing, our church is impoverished,” said Mary Glowaski, secretary. With this in mind, the Ministry for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is renewing its efforts to connect deaf Catholics with parishes by co-sponsoring American Sign Language interpreters and helping parishes find funding to install the “Hearing Loop” system.
In conjunction with Deaf Awareness Month in September, interpreters using ASL will be provided on the second Sunday of each month at both the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne and St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend. It is a small step, but it can connect more deaf Catholics and their families to the church.
Msgr. Robert Schulte, pastor of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, has been co-sponsoring an interpreter for the Secretariat for Evangelization since 2015. He shared: “One of our cathedral parishioners now faithfully attends this Mass once a month and sits close so that she can watch and understand the Mass more fully. I know that she really appreciates this service and it is beneficial. When Bishop Rhoades offers a special Mass, where visitors would attend who could be helped by the presence of an interpreter, this service is also appreciated.”
The cathedral also installed the Hearing Loop in the past year. The Loop allows individuals to connect their hearing devices to the parish sound system and costs about $6,000. Three other parishes in the Fort Wayne area have installed the Loop in the past year — often with donations from parishioners and those who understand that not hearing the word of God impedes a person’s full participation. “There is a sincere desire for the Loop in all parishes throughout the diocese, but funding sources are few,” said Glowaski.
Father David Violi, parochial vicar of St. John the Baptist Parish, South Bend, shared: “At the invitation of Bishop Rhoades, Father Bill Meininger and I were blessed to have spent several years studying American Sign Language during our time in the seminary. This time involved with and learning from the deaf community was a true blessing in my priestly formation. As we enter Deaf Awareness Month this September, it is a great opportunity to increase our understanding of and celebrate the richness of deaf culture and to increase our unity with our deaf brothers and sisters in Christ.
“While ministering in our local parishes, I’ve had several opportunities to interact and form relationships with several of our deaf parishioners. Though my ability to sign is still very limited, I’ve been blessed to interact with these parishioners and, through their lives, see their faithful and loving witness to Christ.”
The Secretariat for Evangelization welcomes the opportunity to work with parishes to provide ASL interpreters for Mass on a monthly basis, and is looking for priests who will offer the sacrament of reconciliation (a written confession is considered valid) and to assist parishes in installing the Hearing Loop. The secretariat is also looking for trained ASL interpreters who desire to serve the deaf Catholics in their area.
To learn more about the Ministry for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, contact Allison Sturm in the Secretariat for Evangelization at email@example.com or at 260-399-1452.
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