“Shun Not the Struggle”: An Upcoming U.S. Catholic Historian Article

FrontSign04Happy New Year! It’s been a busy year for me as I continue research on preaching in sign language around the world.

During January I’ll post the fruits of a few of those projects, but in the meantime I will share a teaser from my upcoming article in U.S. Catholic Historian, “‘Shun Not the Struggle’: The Language and Culture of Deaf Catholics in the U.S., 1949-1977.”  The title is the motto of St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo.

Here’s the abstract:

Culturally Deaf Catholics in the U.S. define themselves not by their disability but by their shared history, language, and traditions. This article narrates a history of Deaf Catholics from the founding of their central membership organization (the International Catholic Deaf Association) in 1949 to the ordination of the first culturally Deaf priest in North America in 1977. The work of hearing priests and pastoral workers resulted in improved availability of religious education and sacraments in sign language in the 1950s through the 1970s. However, this article argues that Deaf Catholics themselves laid the groundwork which would result in a needed increase in Deaf religious vocations. Other conditions that resulted in the expansion of ministry by the Deaf, for the Deaf include the institution of vernacular Masses after Vatican II, the acceptance of American Sign Language (ASL) as a true language in the 1960s, and the development of preaching in ASL. These conditions set the stage for a core group of Deaf Catholic leaders to organize national camps, Cursillos, and retreats in ASL in an attempt to include this marginalized group in the life of the Church.

The article has been accepted for a special 2015 issue on language in Church in North America. It represents several trips to the Deaf Catholic Archives at Holy Cross College in Worcester and abundant (and deeply appreciated) editorial advice from my reviewers. I hope it will invite scholarly dialog on Deaf Catholics as a cultural group with its own history and language conventions, since more perspectives can only improve the small but growing body of scholarship this area.

This post wouldn’t make a very good teaser without at least a few paragraphs from the article itself. So, I’ll leave you with an excerpt on changes in Deaf Catholic communities in the 1960s:

After Vatican II concluded in December 1965, Deaf Catholics became keenly interested in the institution of vernacular Masses and the development of Eucharistic services for specific language communities. Two days after the close of the Council, Pope Paul VI granted permission for sign language to be used at Mass by both the priest and the people. The language used in the pope’s decree indicates a less-than-perfect understanding of the nature of ASL as a true visual and spatial language with a grammar that cannot synch with speech (as opposed to signs used artificially in English word order). The decree permitted, for instance, sign language to be used along with speech only for the parts of the Mass celebrated in the vernacular, implying that thoughts expressed in Latin could not be rendered into sign language. [See Edward Peters, “Canonical and Cultural Developments Culminating in the Ordination of Deaf Men,” Josephinum Journal of Theology, 2008).] Nevertheless, the pope’s permission opened the door for Deaf participation and leadership in liturgy, and the ICDA prominently announced this in a March 1966 ICDA News headline: “Mass in Language of Signs: Approval Granted by His Holiness Pope Paul VI”. For the American Deaf community, this took place at an adventitious time, just as academics and schools for the deaf were recognizing ASL as a true language, providing the Deaf Catholic community with authoritative arguments to include marginalized people in this cultural and linguistic group. A Catholic Universe Bulletin article exemplifies the excitement among Deaf Catholics across North America during this time of change:

“The scene is St. Augustine Church [Cleveland, Ohio]. The people are some of the hundreds of Catholics here-abouts who are deaf or hard of hearing…This congregation uses its own kind of vernacular—that of signs….It has been only about a year since permission was given for congregational use of sign language. Previously, someone stood to the side, outside the sanctuary, explaining in sign language what was taking place. Now, not only do the congregation and the priest use sign language, but the commentator, song leader and altar boys—all deaf—use it too.”

The congregation at St. Augustine signed all the prayers and responses, although the hearing priest, Father Ralph Coletta, spoke and signed simultaneously rather than using ASL. The article goes on to explain that the Deaf considered St. Augustine an essential community center. For the women there was Mary’s Rosary Guild and the men had a Deaf Holy Name Society chapter.

The Deaf Catholic community in America was invigorated by the educational and linguistic developments of the 1960s, and the ICDA did not fail to make use of the increasing visibility of Deaf culture. In particular, Father David Walsh, who became ICDA’s official missionary in 1962, led a nationwide effort to establish Deaf services in every diocese. Called “the great Apostle to Deaf people for the United States” in his obituary, Walsh traveled widely, visiting the bishop or archbishop everywhere he went, often with local Deaf lay leaders accompanying him. If there were no priest or pastoral worker assigned to Deaf ministry in the diocese, Walsh would seek the bishop’s agreement to appoint someone. As more chapters were founded in regions across the U.S., the ICDA came more fully to represent the Deaf Catholic community. Between 1961 and 1971, almost 40 more chapters were established in as many cities.

These developments after Vatican II begged the question of whether there could be culturally Deaf priests whose native language was ASL and who would therefore be able to communicate fully and directly with a Deaf apostolate. Because the Deaf in America were not at this time aware of any culturally Deaf priest except for the Brazilian Vincente Burnier, Deaf Catholic Americans had never seen a priest who could demonstrate preaching or Mass in native ASL. Not until 1983 would the revised Code of Canon Law eliminate physical defect as an irregularity for holy orders, marking a new era for Deaf men who discerned a vocation to serve their community as priests.

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