By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
The Church needs deaf Catholics and their gifts for they can reach people for the Gospel that only they can reach.
That’s the message Archbishop Terrence Prendergast gave delegates at the 11th National Conference of the Canadian Section of the International Catholic Deaf Association (ICDA) in Ottawa July 9-14. He gave his massage at a special Mass where most of the participants responded in sign language and hymns were sung with hands.
A ccording to ICDA Canadian Section’s general chairperson Richard Csabi deaf Catholics have built a loving fellowship that is poised to reach out to deaf Canadians who have either fallen away from the Catholic Church or who have never heard the Gospel.
“There is a joy in being Catholic, and being part of a vibrant community,” said Csabi, through Carol Stokes, the coordinator for deaf ministries for the Toronto Archdiocese.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and its workshops, business meetings, social and sightseeing events encouraged that, said Csabi.
The ICDA may have about 75-80 members in Ottawa, but there could be as many as 3,000 to 4,000 deaf Canadians in the Ottawa archdiocese, he said. “We just don’t know.”
Stokes, who has been working with deaf Catholics since 1970, says there are large numbers in the Toronto area as well, beyond the 2,000 her office serves. But the ICDA needs to get the word out that they exist. “We need more advertising for ourselves,” Csabi said.
For many years, the hearing said the deaf “can’t, can’t, can’t,” said Csabi. “But we can do this. We can be deacons, priests, lectors and Eucharistic ministers.”
Canada now has a deaf seminarian, Matthew Hysell, who will be ordained to the transitional diaconate Aug. 27 in Edmonton. He hopes to be ordained to the priesthood next year.
But Csabi and Stokes recognize more can be done to build bonds between the deaf and the hearing. They added the hearing can learn how to communicate with the deaf and the deaf can do more to learn how to speak so the hearing can understand.
But whether Catholic or not, deaf people find a unity and sense of community that crosses cultural and language boundaries.
Deaf culture is very strong, he said. “It’s a unity, a connection. We’re sensitive to each other.”
Even though American Sign Language (ASL) used by English-speakers, is different from Quebec Sign Language, (LSQ), or languages used in Europe, there is an underlying similarity in deaf culture, Stokes said. Even local areas have their own dialects, she said.
“We have a special culture,” said Csabi. “Our culture is the same where you go, even if people don’t sign in English or ASL. It’s very visible, more like a picture story.”
“Telling picture stories is more visual. It is easier to pick up our actions and gestures,” he said.
A lifelong Catholic, Csabi lost his hearing at the age of 2 ½ when he contracted spinal meningitis. Born in Fort Erie, Ontario, he attended St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in neighboring Buffalo, N.Y. He then went on the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville, Ont. where he met Raymonde, who would eventually become his wife. She waited for him for the five years, seeing him during the summer and on breaks, while he completed a degree in library science at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
He worked at the Carleton University library until his retirement. They raised two sons, who both hear, and have three grandchildren. Raymonde recently passed away after 42 years of marriage. She, too, was active in supporting the deaf Catholic community.
“We encouraged other Catholics fallen away from the Church to come back,” Csabi said. “We tried to be in good fellowship with everyone.”
Stokes believes the Church can do more to make deaf Catholics feel welcome. In parishes where there are no ASL interpreters, deaf people need to be able to sit up front so they can see. She also suggested a stipend to support an interpreter, something deaf Catholics may not be able to afford themselves.
“It would be wondering if our Canadian Catholic Bishops really supported the deaf,” said Stokes, “Especially the Canadian chapter of the ICDA.”
She expressed pride in the fact that Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, knows sign language
“Archbishop Prendergast is very supportive here,” Stokes said.
“If the deaf see the bishops support them, then more and more will come back,” she said.
Csabi points out deaf Catholics love to socialize, especially after Mass.
“The hearing people leave,” he said. “Sometimes we get kicked outside of the church because we stay so long.”
“Us deaf people should teach the hearing people,” he said. “Once Mass is finished we socialize with each other. The way you get community is to stay and chat.”
“There’s more unity,” he said. “If there’s any social event we all seem to know about it.”
Stokes pointed out deaf Catholics participate in the non-religious activities sponsored for those with hearing loss, such as community sponsored card games, darts and other events.