Thursday, September 03, 2009

Priest studies sign language to better minister to deaf Catholics

Source Link - Priest studies sign language to better minister to deaf Catholics

The silence of the hallways is only interrupted by intermittent laughter and the occasional sound of moving chairs. A man noiselessly converses with someone on a higher floor, turns away and heads up a spiraling staircase to join his companion.

At Gallaudet University in Washington, an institution specializing in undergraduate liberal arts education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, the pervasive quiet does not suggest a lack of activity.

During one of Gallaudet's summer sessions, many classrooms were full of hearing and deaf students learning everything from elementary sign language to how to prepare for interpretation exams.

Father Thomas Rozman, pastor of St. Patrick Cathedral Parish in Harrisburg, Pa., was practicing signing with his classmates in one of the rooms, with desks in a circle to maximize visibility. He is in his second consecutive year of summer studies at Gallaudet and is taking American Sign Language II, or ASL, in an effort to help more deaf Catholics feel a part of their faith.

"They feel like they don't have a home in the church because they can't communicate," Father Rozman, who is not deaf, said. "A deaf person who wants to go to confession can write, but it's uncomfortable."

The Harrisburg Diocese has a focus on including Catholics in worship and parish life, Father Rozman told Catholic News Service. About two years ago the diocese established an Office for Ministry with People with Disabilities. Currently, most of the interpreters are laypeople. The priest said he was not aware of other priests in his area learning sign language.

In Harrisburg in June, Father Michael Depcik, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who is himself deaf and ministers to deaf Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago, celebrated Mass for the deaf and hearing communities at St. Patrick Cathedral.

The special Mass further inspired Father Rozman to continue his own efforts to communicate better with Catholics who are deaf. He said he learned 96 percent of Catholics who are deaf have never been to Mass -- a statistic that both saddened him and encouraged him to create change.

"Evangelization is so important in the church and I think it's troubling when we hear that 96 percent of Catholics who are deaf don't go to church," Father Rozman said. "I think that we as evangelizers need to get the word across and a way of doing that is for someone to learn sign language and help them (deaf Catholics), especially with confession."

He noted Chicago and Detroit as two areas experimenting with regularly offering interpreted liturgies. Father Rozman said his diocese was fortunate to have two people who alternate interpreting Mass every week.

They see their actions as service and do not charge for their time, but Father Rozman understands this is not the case for many parishes.

The time needed to learn what he calls "a beautiful but difficult language" is extensive, not to mention the costs of tuition and temporarily filling someone's position while they take classes in ASL.

In addition, he said clergy need to understand that people who are deaf are a close-knit community and "don't see deafness as a handicap; they see it as a culture."

Sign language and English are not the same languages just conveyed in different ways, he stressed. Signed Exact English, or SEE, is the equivalent of English without sound, but he said from what he understands the deaf prefer ASL.

For example SEE uses four distinct symbols to represent the question "What are you doing?" In ASL, it's one symbol.

In addition to attending summer classes, Father Rozman works throughout the year with his tutor, Sandy Duncan, a deaf parishioner. Duncan said he became a Catholic about 15 years ago and regularly attends an interpreted Mass at the Harrisburg cathedral with five other deaf parishioners.

In a telephone interview, Duncan's wife interpreted a CNS reporter's questions for him, he responded in ASL and his wife told the reporter his answers.

In general, he told CNS he understands Mass but without an interpreter he wouldn't be able to follow along. Duncan said he doesn't think the Catholic Church has done enough to incorporate deaf Catholics into the faith and that each diocese should have a plan for including them.

For now, regardless of whether they fully comprehend it, Duncan said, deaf Catholics should attend Mass in hopes they will pick it up little by little.

"I advise them to come to a Mass that is signed. Deaf people travel to other events -- they should travel to Mass," Duncan said. "That's just part of being deaf and that's the only way they can truly be included in the Catholic community."

As part of his training, Father Rozman takes advantage of online tutorials, which he said are prevalent on the Internet. Two of the Web sites he visits most often are, an online dictionary equipped with short videos of many words and phrases demonstrated in ASL; an online religious dictionary; and

Because ASL is not a direct translation of English, Father Rozman said he often has to communicate using finger spelling, the rapid movement of fingers to represent individual letters. He admits this skill has proved one of the language's biggest challenges because of how quickly many deaf people can form the letters.

He said he regularly uses online sources to take timed quizzes on four different speeds he humorously referred to as "slow, medium, fast and deaf." Although he can eventually communicate his thoughts correctly, it is still often difficult to understand what others are signing, Father Rozman said.

The priest said he hopes to return to Washington next summer to continue his studies in ASL and wants to attend a couple of conferences. Eventually, he said, he wants to be able to celebrate Mass entirely in ASL.

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