Sacred Signs: Portraits of Deaf Preachers in the Catholic Church

Fr. MD's Kitchen Table

Fr. Mike Depcik preaching at Fr. MD’s Kitchen Table

Last month, I promised a Table of Contents for my multibiography on Deaf priests, and lo and behold, here it is. Of course, I’m still in the middle of my research, and book-writing itself will take place mostly in 2015. But I do have a plan.

I welcome any and all feedback, especially from the Deaf community, on the titles I have here.

Working title “Sacred Signs: Portraits of Deaf Preachers in the Catholic Church”
Or “Sacred Signs: A Multibiography of Deafness in the Priesthood”
(Which do you all like better?)

So far, I have 6 chapters and a preface planned. A different charism will be the organizing principle for each chapter, which will contain priestly portraits illustrating that special gift. Here’s the plan:

Preface: A Hearing Author on a Deaf Pilgrimage  (This is the only part of the book in mostly first person. I will reflect on both my limitations and separateness as an observer of Deafness and the ways I’m one with Deaf Catholics as a Catholic myself. It will also address the major theme of deafness as both a gift and as a way of suffering, both for the Deaf individual and for the larger community.)

1. Christ for All Nations: The Story of Deafness in the Priesthood     (Introductory history, Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta as the first documented Deaf priest in history, the rise of Deaf Empowerment and the Deaf World community as a language-based group.)

2. Discernment and the Gift of Deafness (This tells a Jesuit story. Fr. Joe Bruce, Fr. Paul Fletcher, and the the new, culturally Deaf novice in South Korea who recently announced his discernment to become a Jesuit.)

3. Deaf World, Deaf Missionaries (Fr. Tom Coughlin, the first American Deaf priest; and Fr. Cyril Axelrod, convert from Orthdox Judaism and prolific world missionary to the Deaf.)

4. The Body Homiletic: Sacred Rhetoric in ASL (Mostly Fr. Mike Depcik as a New Media signing preacher; and Deacon Patrick Graybill, the ASL poet, actor, and homilist. Also a typography of styles of ASL preaching with examples from other priests, hearing and Deaf.)

5. Good Shepherds of the Deaf: Pastoral Challenges (Here the narratives open up to the daily life of Deaf ministry as a priest. Several of the stories are of priests from nations other than the U.S. and young priests, under 40 years old, who are facing the challenges of leadership or pastoring. Fr. Flemming, Fr. Paul Zirimenya, Fr. Min-Seo Park, and Fr. Shawn Carey.)

6. Love and the Gift of Listening (Fr. Christopher Klusman and stories from several others, along with a call to action for Deaf ministries to take a visible role in the broader life of the Church.)

As I journey through my long and wonder-filled trail of research, narratives are taking shape in my journal and smaller essay projects. Next weekend, I’ll finally get to interview Fr. Mike Depcik, whose ASL vlog of Sunday Homilies is a model and inspiration for many signing preachers. I’m also organizing and developing archival research through an essential partnership with Fr. Joe Bruce, assistant to the Holy Cross archivist for the Deaf Catholic Archives in Worcester.

U.S. Catholic Historian (CUA Press) has invited me to submit an article on “Sign Language and Deaf Ministry in America: 1949-2013.” I’m slowly writing that bit of history now, which covers the founding of the International Council of Deaf Catholics (ICDA) in 1949 and some stories of Deaf priestly vocations from that time forward. It’s very satisfying to be in the midst of this long project, getting to know all of these fine people and learning more about human language and especially Deaf spirituality and community.

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