This is an article in an Asian news site about deaf-blind priest Fr. Cyril Axelrod (originally from South Africa) reuniting with his friend, the first and only Korean deaf priest, Park Min-seo. Essentially, it is world news about an entirely silent, tactile conversation between two preachers. Fr. Cyril, who recently won an Order of the British Empire for his work in Korea, was the person who inspired Min-seo to persevere in becoming a priest so that he too could preach to the deaf.
Deacon Patrick, an ASL poet and actor, joined the National Theatre of the Deaf in 1967. He has taught at the National Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at Rochester Institute of Technology. His acting skill and understanding of audience contribute to a strong, expressive delivery in preaching. Here he begins his homily with an example about a selfish customer in a mattress store who annoys the patient salesman by trying out every bed in the store. By the visual and spatial nature of ASL, good examples and and stories become what ancient rhetors called enargeia–the use of visual imagery to make the subject vividly present to the audience. In Patrick Graybill’s hands, visual enactment of an example also conveys a sense of vigor and energy. In this case, it’s the feeling of being vigorously annoyed and needing a way to accept people who are a pain in the neck with peace, even in the course of everyday hassles.
Imagine for a moment, if you can, that you are both deaf and blind. You are lying on your back on a massage table, your body draped with a cool sheet, and scents of mint and citrus pervade the quiet room. Your mind is reeling with a deep grief for your own sense of sight which, over the past few years, gradually narrowed to a tiny field of vision, only to disappear completely like a glimmer through the crack of a door that is sealed forever. This is the effect of Usher’s Syndrome, a rare disease that causes profound deafness and, eventually, irreversible blindness.
As you lie there, wondering if you will ever communicate with loved ones or access an exchange of ideas again, you feel a gentle hand grasping your toe and then pressing the sole of your foot. Next this hand, a man’s warm and consoling hand, cradles your own upturned palm and begins to write on it with a fingertip: HELLO. IT IS ME, CYRIL. HOW ARE YOU FEELING? You release a breath you didn’t know you had been holding, and a swell of relief passes through your body as you begin to relax. Cyril is the deaf-blind priest who is guiding you through this appointment, an aromatherapy massage session that will calm your plunging emotions and begin to open you up to your new life, a life that will teach you to appreciate new ways of knowing, to recognize your own belonging and self-worth, and above all, to experience that radical trust we call faith.
Looking back, I remember how my mind would go blank when people asked me about it and I could never explain it in terms of faith alone. To me it did not feel like choosing to give up one faith for another. It was not, as many people thought, that the love and care I had from the sisters at St. Vincent’s School had influenced me to give up Judaism. It is true that their warmth was something very important to me and that my parents, by contrast, had found it difficult to overcome the communication barriers. However, this was not the reason. In fact, now I realize the choice I struggled with, through the various phases of my conversion, was really not a choice at all. I have within me, even now, an acceptance of both faiths as equal, harmonious and complementary, something which maybe is beyond the comprehension and understanding of most Jews and Catholics. (72)
I became depressed, angry and filled with disbelief. It was a time of great loss and I seemed to feel it throughout my whole body. I became restless, weary and uncoordinated. My vision, my physical mobility, my ability to read, my ability to communicate with others and above all, my independence had changed… Only a few people knew my background or knew of my life’s service. Suddenly I was seen only as a deafblind man. People did not approach me as they once had. I had learned to receive sign language by feeling rather than watching the signer’s hands (hands on), but I noticed that some deaf people in England seemed to withdraw from me, not feeling confident about communicating this way. (189)
This blog post offers some of my initial observations on religious sacraments in sign language. It is the conclusion to my paper for the American Academy of Religion. Part I was in my last blog post.
The Roman Catholic Mass in American Sign Language, Part II
The Catholic Church teaches that its sacraments are visible signs of invisible grace, a tangible means through which God communicates spiritual gifts to believers. The dual nature of a sacrament, as both material and spiritual, is roughly comparable to the sacramental use of any sign in worship. The human body, however, is especially relevant to sacramental meaning. In Doctrina Christiana, Augustine divides signs into natural and made signs. Natural signs, apart from any intention to use them as signs, still lead to the knowledge of something else— for example, smoke indicating fire, the footprint of an animal, or the countenance of an angry man. Conventional signs, on the other hand, are signs that people use to show, as well as they can, their feelings, perceptions, or thoughts. As Augustine points out, a human being is also a sign, a sign in the image of God. In the Mass, signs formed with the human body are at one and the same time natural signs and conventional signs, telling the stories of Scripture and performing the rituals of the Church in human-constructed language. This is true for spoken words in a Mass as well, but seeing sign language as the body in action epitomizes the truth of this explanation.
In 20th century rhetorical theory, much is made of the sign and its forms in human communication. Kenneth Burke, arguably the most influential 20th century rhetorical scholar, defined rhetoric as symbolic communication that induces identification in humans, making them consubstantial with each other. When an audience receives religious communication in visual language through a deaf signer, that audience identifies with the deaf body as human in the most complete sense. For Burke, the definition of form in communication is: the evoking and fulfillment of desire. When a deaf audience receives the stories of Scripture in the form of a signing lector, or the sacraments from a deaf priest, that audience more naturally desires union with what the Church represents.
On the second Sunday of Lent, Fr. Joe Bruce, a deaf Jesuit currently at St. Francis Church, gave a homily on Luke 9, where God says from a cloud, “This is my chosen son, listen to him.” Fr. Joe’s style of preaching aligns with the American Deaf traditions of storytelling, dramatic performance, and poetry in sign language. His homilies contain few long stretches of monologue and much interactive dialog. For example, he will call a teenager up and sign-and-speak a one-on-one Socratic dialog, or he will call parishioners by name, asking questions and including them as co-participants in the sermon. This form of homily, requiring immediate engagement from the audience, stands in sharp contrast to a homily at a non-deaf parish; even a spoken homily interpreted in ASL not particularly engaging, because it is second hand.
Fr. Joe usually begins with a story from his own life, a sure way for his audience to identify with him as someone who also grew up with deaf experiences. However, in this homily Fr. Joe focused on a sign that might stand out for the deaf audience: listen. One of the ASL signs places a hand next to the ear, as if to hear better. It is bound to strike some of the people as ironic. He asks the congregation if any of them have decided to do something for Lent – not many raise their hands. Why not take time, he asks, to listen? “This means you listen not only to the words of the person but also to another flesh and blood person.” This is how the English manuscript puts it, but his delivery is much more interactive and present than the static words of a script. It is the person you listen to, not just the words. He gives examples of people who were good listeners: Mary, who listened to angels; Hellen Keller, who could neither hear nor see but listened through touch to her teacher Annie Sullivan; and St. John Vianney, who spent 12 hours a day listening to broken hearts in the confessional. Each time Fr. Joe perceives that his audience knows something about his examples, he asks them for information and confirmation, drawing out their part in the rhetorical reasoning, and giving them a vested interest in the meaning of the homily. When he can tell that the audience feels united in agreement—you might say in belief, for belief is what rhetoric aims to secure—Fr. Joe proceeds with his conclusion: an exhortation to attend to God by listening not just to his words, but to the person who is present to us in the signed readings and to human beings who are the body of Christ in the church. This is how form in persuasion works. As Plato put it in his Phaedrus, the office of good rhetoric is the enchantment of souls in order to move them to truth. Spiritual truths are beyond words, and prophetic writers and speakers have often failed for words and needed tangible signs for help. This is something the deaf know about.
At St. Francis in Landover, there is a stained glass window depicting Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7. As you recall, Jesus spits on some dirt, covers his fingers with mud, and sticks them in the man’s ears, saying “Ephphatha!” – be opened. The man is then miraculously able to hear and speak, and goes away proclaiming the good news. This is a troubling passage to parishioners at St. Francis. To be told that Jesus heals deafness and that this is a sign of God’s grace can frustrate or alienate deaf people who remain deaf all their lives. Yet, led by other deaf Christians, the deaf Christian is not afraid to look deeper at the passage. Consider the following story from 1914 in American Annals of the Deaf: a 10-year old girl, daughter of a physician, had been educated orally in mainstream schools, always struggling academically and suffering ridicule from other children. Her cousin, a teacher at Gallaudet, asked her one day, “Why don’t you teach the deaf!” The young woman reflected years later:
He had spoken my “Ephphatha.” From that time on I studied with that one end in view—to be a teacher of the deaf. In the seventh grade I received an ear-trumpet which was a literal “Ephphatha.” … I used this trumpet and with its aid carried off honors in every class, always longing to prove that the deaf were the equals of the hearing. Finally I was sent to the College at Washington, D.C. to fit myself to teach the deaf . . . Eight hundred miles from home, I went that first Sunday to chapel services for the deaf. Services were opened with the Lord’s Prayer given by that master of sign language, Dr. E.M. Gallaudet. . .That day my trumpet was useless. The words of that prayer were rendered in the beautiful sign language, then practically unknown to me. I was the only one of that large gathering unable to understand the familiar prayer and my eyes filled with tears as the magnitude of the task of completing my education and also mastering an entirely new language overwhelmed me. … As I stood there weeping in unutterable loneliness, the grace and beauty of the sign language began to fascinate and to hold me. I raised my eyes to the motto above the platform, “Ephphatha;” the word seemed to speak to me directly as it must have appealed to that deaf man when it came from Christ’s lips. . . “Ephphatha” spoke this new language, and ever since I have cherished the word and sought to master the language of signs… I came to realize the power, the beauty, and the majesty of that sign language as it is used in prayer, in lecture, in Shakespeare readings, in story, and in song. … When all else fails to hold the interest of the deaf, when all other avenues fail to reach their hearts, the sign language speaks their “Ephphatha.” (Laura Bates, American Annals of the Deaf 1914, pp. 153-4)
Last Friday, I presented a paper on sign language in the Mass at an American Academy of Religion (AAR) conference. The theme of the conference was “the senses in religious experience.” How could I resist? It was my first time presenting research on Deaf Catholics to such a group, and they gave me a name for some of the work I’m doing: “religious anthropology.” On my panel, entitled “Sensing Religious Subcultures,” there was an expert on Native American (Crow Tribe) expressions of Pentecostal Christianity, and a paper on “nones,” the new category of people who embrace whichever beliefs appeal to them, regardless of doctrinal affiliation. I have to admit that I found the conference both stimulating and puzzling. I learned that I need to do a spotless job of “bracketing my colonialist beliefs” when speaking before such a group (though they are more tolerant of beliefs, in general, than many social scientists). On the other hand, I also felt a little like Alice in a wonderland peopled with Jane Goodalls, colonizers of a different sort.
Here, for your reading pleasure, is my AAR paper in the first of two installments:
The Roman Catholic Mass in American Sign Language
Like the people in its congregation, St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover, Maryland, appears ordinary at first glance. Inside the sanctuary, however, visitors can observe its special purpose. Behind the altar is the usual crucifix, but this is surrounded by a 15-foot, corona-shaped mosaic fashioned by parishioners. The terra cotta tiles on either side of Christ’s outstretched hands bear images of the ASL sign for Jesus: one stigmatized hand appears on either side of the crucified body, with the middle finger of the opposite hand touching a nail-wound. The rest of the corona is comprised of parishioner’s hand prints in all sizes, each bearing a nail mark, fanned out in an arch so that arrangement resembles tongues of flame more than death on a cross. The truth of this allusion is manifest as parishioners arrive, greet each other, and prepare for the opening procession. Here we do not hear tongues of flame speaking every language; here we see hands, and people themselves, embodying human language.
In America there are several varieties of sign language ranging from Signed English to American Sign Language (or ASL). The choice of language variety often depends on the composition of the audience. Because it is natural for deaf people to communicate with each other soundlessly and visually, ASL grammar uses the body and three dimensional space to convey distance, location, prepositional relationships, time, mood, number, and myriad other features which are conveyed in English by speaking or writing one word after another in a certain order. If there are hearing people present in a deaf Catholic worship service, and usually there are along with some hard-of-hearing and oral speaking deaf people, the priest will often say the English words out loud at the same time that he signs the ritual. In a form of communication like this, the signs must match, or nearly match, the word order of English. The result is a pidgin Signed English, or ASL signs in English word order. The English words of a Mass celebrated in this form generally follow the pacing of the signed communication. It is not difficult to see that Signed English is not a separate language, but a visual accompaniment to spoken English.
ASL is the language accepted in elite sites of American Deaf culture, such as Gallaudet University and most deaf schools in the 50 states, where the complete language developed among students and alumni. At St. Francis parish, for a mixed audience, Deaf lectors sign scripture voicelessly in ASL, but a speaking person interprets in English or simply reads the English passage aloud at approximately the same rate as the signed communication. On occasion a deaf priest may find himself signing a Mass to an entirely deaf congregation. When there is no need to speak aloud because the company cannot hear, ASL is most often the language for American signers who have been exposed to deaf culture and other deaf people. Lip reading is exceedingly difficult and energy-draining, and most deaf people do not lip-read any better than the average hearing person after years of painstaking practice.
One hearing priest at St. Francis parish who signs and speaks the Mass at the same time recently demonstrated a tongues-of-flame moment at my dinner table. I watched in amazement as he finger spelled “d-o-g” on one hand and “c-a-t” on the other. “It is difficult, but the brain can actually be trained to do two completely different things at once,” he said. “Sometimes, for a little while, I find I can speak English and sign ASL at the same time.”
In practice, Fr. Jerry’s onlookers notice that during a bilingual address, his style slips into and out of ASL as the dominant language, at those times allowing his pidgin Signed English to drop for a few phrases while he signs silently and then, a beat later, interprets himself verbally, occasionally speaking English in ASL sign order by accident. There is an unmistakable tension between language of the eye and the language of the ear, reminiscent of human kind’s dual nature as our spiritual and physical sides vie for the lead.
On the Archdiocese of Washington website, you will find video examples of signed Mass prayers designed to help interpreters at hearing parishes. Individual signers may use slightly different signs, regional differences or ideographs representing an individual’s style. These kinds of differences are in the nature of gestural, manually executed communication. Unlike English, ASL has no written mode to codify the words and make them seem immortally permanent in print. Understandably, the seeming unchangeable quality of written words can make holy texts themselves seem a worthy subject of worship. However, the Mass in sign language offers congregations a complex presentation of words and signs used together in worship. For the hearing observer, it is easy to romanticize this act of communication because it is passionately present, yet seems otherworldly compared to rote recitation of written prayers. It may call to mind the platonic belief that absolute truth is inaccessible for word-making humans.
My area of research is the history of rhetoric. In my field, we study the practice of persuasion through human use of signs. Taken together, persuasive signs can add up to eloquence—sometimes even sublime art. Traditionally, historians of rhetoric have studied oratory and writing, with the definition of sign being limited to voiced or written words. But gesture and the body have always been essential to meaningful and effective delivery for in-person audiences. It is true that resonant, correct delivery of speech sounds was the primary aim for 19th-century elocutionary schools in America. Their teachings often emphasized corrective, even medicalized approaches to speech, as in the work of Alexander Graham Bell. Other teachers of rhetoric, however, stressed a connection with the audience and the employment of the whole body for delivery. Elocutionists had many approaches to teaching gesture in rhetorical delivery, some rigidly choreographed like Gilbert Austin’s 1806 Chironomia, and some more natural like Thomas Sheridan’s Lectures on Elocution. As print and radio dominated American culture rhetorical gesture faded from view, but video and electronic media are bringing bodily, visual delivery back to audiences of all compositions and sizes. Hands and body are once again recognizably essential for the study of rhetoric. In this light preaching and other persuasive arts in sign language are important to the history of rhetoric in America. Although voice is an essential part of delivery in traditional eloquence, rhetors who use sign language have much to teach students of rhetoric and religious studies about the use of sight, touch, and the presence of the human body to exhort, teach, inspire, and lead audiences.
The connection between religious rhetoric and sign language is not new; it has its beginnings in education for the deaf. The invention of sign language is often inaccurately attributed to French theologian and educator Charles-Michel del’Epée. L’Epée observed that the deaf community in Paris already used a gestural language, now referred to as Old French Sign. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, L’Epée adapted the vocabulary of this natural sign language for use in his National Institute of Deaf-Mutes. His system, called the Instructional Method of Signs, used manual signs in French word order and invented signs to represent French verb endings, articles, and prepositions. Essentially, L’Epée had created Signed French. Before state funding secularized them, the first schools for the deaf began as religious schools. Religious education was a strong motivation for the development of signed languages from the beginning, especially in the mixed company of deaf and hearing people. Even Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a preacher who graduated from Andover Theological Seminary before becoming a deaf educator.
Before 1921, when Fr. Charles Jean-Marie La Fonta became the first deaf priest, the Catholic Church had never ordained a deaf man. Since then, 18 deaf Catholic priests have been ordained and serve in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Columbia, South Africa, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Korea. In the United States and abroad, deaf congregations and their rhetorical conventions create a bridge of inclusiveness for deaf people in the larger culture. It might seem ironic that separate parish communities, with almost entirely deaf parishioners and signing priests, like St. Francis of Assisi, would help to assimilate deaf people. But it is not hard to understand if we see the deaf community as a group of people defined by their common use of visual and tactile language. In America, we have parishes that provide Masses and pastoral services in Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Ukrainian, and scores of other languages — all without the distancing mediation of third-party interpreters.
The Deaf have often been painfully, cripplingly isolated from mainstream American culture at large. Model parishes like St. Francis take a positive step in sharing mainstream religious practice with them. The growth in deaf ministries and parishes preaches a new understanding of Christian belonging for the Church at large. History demonstrates that the Catholic Church, like other institutions, has considered deaf people primarily the object of charity, as “people like that” in need of help and condescension. To have full membership in a church, however, the Deaf need more than catechism classes with an interpreter. Deaf adults, like any other member of a faith, need to be able to give back to the community at large, find their vocations in the world, and practice social justice and charity, all in a language they can understand. This is a leap from ministry to the Deaf to ministry with the deaf as spiritual equals rather than an optional charity. All Christians are called to serve, and Deaf people need to be able to minister to each other and to the church at large in the fullness of faith, analogous to every adult’s right to participate as full citizens in American civic life. At a time when Catholic vocations have dropped severely in the general population, we have seen the refreshing rise of deaf men’s vocations—an example to all the Church, not just deaf Catholics, of a more complete integration of its members. According to Catholic doctrine, there are no marginal members in the body of Christ, and Christ’s example requires full inclusion and integration with those who suffer from disabilities. Real accommodation and inclusion help all Christians see a tenet of their faith: that all humans are disabled without God and without each other…
[Please stay tuned for part II in my next blog post.]
In my last post on Word & Sign, I described the struggles of Charles Jean-Marie La Fonta to become the first deaf priest, including his decades of training in elocution and rhetorical delivery. Fr. La Fonta’s greatest handicap was not his inability to hear but rather the misconceptions of society about deaf people in general. Once Fr. La Fonta had broken through this barrier, he began immediately to minister to the deaf in France. As the first deaf priest, Jean-Marie La Fonta helped show the world that it was possible for deaf people to master languages and every subject matter studied by hearing people. But more importantly, he showed the world that deaf people have a need to use their personal talents and strengths, just like anyone else, by giving back as full members of society.
La Fonta’s biography, A Miracle of Faith (1930) by Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac, tells us that, on the day of his ordination on June 29, 1921, the new priest prayed:
Dear Lord, I will be your priest. I shall also be the deaf-mutes’ priest, teach them your commandments, and lead them on the way to you.
Only two days later, La Fonta visited the deaf students at an institute for the deaf at rue de Manille, Paris. He joined the children on the playground and talked to them about how happy he was to be their priest. After this school, he visited others, including the National Institute for deaf girls in Bordeaux and the Institute for the Deaf in Poitiers. At every school, the children were delighted to greet the priest who was a “deaf-mute” like themselves. In his work with the deaf in France, Fr. La Fonta traveled constantly and worked tirelessly for the remainder of his life.
Although Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac’s biography does not say much about his methods of preaching, the question arises: did Fr. La Fonta speak to the deaf with his well-trained voice or did he use sign language? The answer is surely that he used both and adapted to the needs of his audience. The school La Fonta had attended as a child, the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Bordeaux, was the famous school founded in 1760 by Abbé Charles-Michel de l’Épée, somewhat erroneously known as the inventor of sign language. L’Epee did not actually invent signs for the deaf. He adapted signs that he learned from a community of deaf people in Paris for use in his school’s “Instructional Method of Signs.” This method included verb endings, articles, and prepositions in an attempt to communicate in French using the hands. This is similar to today’s Signed Exact English. L’Epee’s method of teaching the deaf was based on the natural principle that education for the deaf must teach through the eye what other people learn through the ear. Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta knew both spoken French and sign language for the deaf, after his early education at the Institute under its second headmaster Fr. Cucurron Sicard. What a tribute it must have been when, for a centennial celebration in honor of Fr. Sicard, Fr. La Fonta offered his first public Mass in spoken French. The people heard him clearly say the words of prayer for his benefactor.
In 1924, Fr. La Fonta obtained permission to receive the confessions of deaf people. He then could offer them, most for the first time, the Catholic Church’s sacrament of reconciliation. Without this sacrament, many deaf people would not have been able to receive the Eucharist, and therefore could not participate fully in their religious heritage and the life of their community. He also gave religious conferences to deaf adults who were former students of the National Institute. His service to the deaf grew as his priestly life continued to grow:
At a reunion in Poitiers, Jean-Marie gave the homily at Mass. He spoke very distinctly and used sign language. Everyone understood him and appreciated the things he spoke about. His love for the deaf could be seen in everything he did. Jean-Marie knew only too well the needs of the deaf-mutes. They needed to be accepted in society, to overcome the sense of rejection, to be at peace with themselves.
In addition to his religious services, Fr. La Fonta spoke out about education for the deaf. Although he used and appreciated sign language, he was an advocate of new scientific and technological advances that might encourage the deaf to understand the spoken word, to read languages based on the spoken word, and also to speak to people in society at large. In July 1926, he wrote a paper for the General Assembly of the Association for the Deaf in Nantes, in which he advocated oral methods for educating the deaf: “After leaving school the students will be able to learn sign language which will allow them to communicate with each other at a distance. Lip reading can only be learned if the teacher avoids as many gestures or signs as possible. It requires too much attention focused on the lips and their movement.” It is interesting that La Fonta supported so whole-heartedly the English and German method of oral communication and lip-reading, to the exclusion of the French method of signs and speech, at least in the classroom. He was part of a controversy over methods in deaf education that continues to this day. Signs, for La Fonta, were not for learning the French language. Learning French was very difficult for deaf students who had to focus on oral language and its written counterpart through the easily confused visual shapes of the lips and tongue. He found signs useful, however, for communication exclusively between deaf people or for communicating ideas at a distance–for example while preaching.
In all of his work with the deaf, La Fonta supported inclusion and integration into society:
Jean-Marie devoted himself entirely to teaching the deaf. He loved them because he knew their needs, he became closely associated with them… In the short span of his priestly life, Jean-Marie planted the seed. He never knew the growth that followed. It was left to others to nurture the apostolate he had begun.
After only a few years of unceasing work, Fr. La Fonta’s health began to fail. In 1929 he died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family. He was 51 years old. His sisters said to him, “As a priest, you will have to be replaced by one of your nephews.” He nodded agreement, but then added,
May my death call forth a new deaf-mute priest, for they truly need one.
Among the documents I discovered during my recent trip to the Deaf Catholic Archives in Massachusetts was a biography of the first priest who was born deaf, Fr. Charles Jean-Marie La Fonta (1878-1927). The book is called Un Miracle de la Foi. Un Sourd-Muet Devenu Pretre — A Miracle of Faith, A Deaf-Mute Becomes a Priest, by Mme. Raoul de Chaunac-Lanzac (1930, Paris). In the 1970’s, Sr. Elizabeth Kass found this rare book in a Canadian convent, photocopied it, and gave it to Fr. Joseph Bruce for the Deaf Catholic Archives. He had it translated by Joseph D. Gauthier, a fellow Jesuit. Four installments were published in Listening magazine, a publication of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, but Gauthier’s manuscript is the only complete English translation.
The book illustrates some common misconceptions that deaf people have faced. For example, the term “deaf-mute” was commonly used in the 1800s and the first half of the 20th century to refer to all deaf people–whether or not they could speak. Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac’s biography often refers to Charles La Fonta’s deafness as an “infirmity,” as if being born deaf meant being permanently sick.
However, Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac also carefully describes Fr. La Fonta’s decades of grueling training in spoken elocution, as well as his ceaseless dedication to preaching to the deaf after his ordination in 1921 (in both spoken word and sign language). For anyone interested in rhetoric, deaf studies, pulpit oratory, or Church history, Fr. La Fonta’s rhetorical education and his preaching are jewels of interest and inspiration. Although he was a prayerful boy, the presumption for La Fonta and his family was that a deaf man simply could not be a priest.
At a very early age, Charles amused himself by saying Mass. The boy prepared everything on the table and with genuine respect, imitated the priest at the altar… His mother was deeply pleased by her son’s piety, regretting meanwhile that his deafness would not allow him to attain the priesthood.
By the time he was 3 years old, Charles’ mother Helene would have him do articulation and lip-reading exercises for an hour each day, and she continued his early intervention at an institute for the Deaf in Bordeaux run by the Sisters of Nevers. By the age of 8, Charles began to study French with a teacher while his mother continued daily lessons in articulation and pronunciation. Although there were no hearing aids at the time, Charles’ rapid progress in speech indicate both the tremendous amount of time spent on early (pre-school) intervention and the probability that he had some residual hearing:
The Superior of the Institute for Deaf-mutes, Mother Angelique, encouraged the young mother and Sister Philippe outlined the program of studies. In Paris, Mlle Dubois, by another method, obtained softer tones in the voice. With such teachers, Charles’ pronunciation became clear, articulate and soft. Charles understood everything and made himself understood. In the way he shared in a general conversation, one would never have imagined that he was deaf. Furthermore, he led the same life as his brothers and sisters.
Although Charles had great concentration and worked harder and longer than his hearing peers at school, he was well-adjusted and accepting of his deafness. When he was fourteen years old, he told his sister, “I do not ask for a cure. I would not want Our Lady to make that a condition for becoming a priest.” Even this young, Charles knew that he could set a precedent for deaf people after him.
In his preparation for college, Charles studied mathematics, history, English, and Latin. He finally enrolled in the University of Bordeaux in 1898, when he was 20 years old, and completed his studies with honors. In 1899 he attended the Institute of Agriculture at Beauvais, where he always sat in the front row. “He lost none of the lecture, following the movement of the lips with great concentration, thus using his eyes to replace his hearing. Then he would borrow his neighbor’s written notes, enlarge on them and if need be, he would go to the professor for further clarification.” In July of 1901 he graduated second in his class.
By the time he was 27, the desire to become a priest was foremost in Charles’ mind. Unfortunately, he faced almost unilateral opposition because of society’s preconceptions and the general mislabeling of “deaf-mutes.”
The Benedictines and the Jesuits were categorical in their refusal to accept him, the former because of the chanting of the divine office and the latter because of the importance of preaching. Impossible to make an exception. ‘You could be admitted into a religious order,’ he was told, ‘but only as a lay brother.’
The Assumptionists, however, considered the possibility that he might make a choir vicar, an administrative position in support of cathedral activities. They agreed to a trial of three months “because there was a certain anxiety about the difficulties that might arise from the infirmity. And yet, there was also the fact that a religious vocation should not be thwarted.” Charles wrote to his mother:
You see that our prayers have not been fully answered. We just continue to pray with great patience. The Consultors feel it is better not to pursue the request for the priesthood at this time. They feel it would be better to wait a little while so that I can learn to pronounce perfectly and thus make a better impression on the examining bishop, who might happen to be very exacting.
With perseverance, Charles entered the novitiate, but he endured a great deal of anxiety about whether he would be accepted into the priesthood–so much so that he reversed his earlier desire not to have a cure:
Dear Mother, I’d do anything to help you bear this cross. I have made a novena asking for the healing of my ears. I will continue again and again until God hears me. Please ask the little deaf-mute (girls) of Bordeaux to pray for this intention. Should the Assumptionists decide not to keep me, I would be deeply sorrowful and would be loathe to accept the separation…I will certainly suffer many contradictions and many criticisms. They do not bother me in the least, since God wanted me.
In Rome, however, the cardinals who studied the case all gave a negative answer without giving a reason for their refusal. The superior of his order told Charles that “such a dispensation has never been granted and could not be granted unless the person were cured.” When Charles heard this result, he did not give up. He expressed his conviction that the Pope would have the final say “and one word from him would indicate God’s will.” Again Charles wrote his mother:
The answer was not a surprise to me. The cardinals must have thought that the deaf-mute in question, although better trained than most, did not posses the necessary aptitudes nor a suitable pronunciation. They must have said: Ma nono tutti matti! They are all mad! Not having seen me, they based their decision on generalities. …If the Roman congregations persist in their refusal, in order not to create a precedent, then the only way to know God’s will is to speak to the Holy Father himself.
In May of 1916, when he was 38 years old, Charles met Canon Rousselot, professor of linguistics at the Sorbonne, who continued work on correcting Charles’ pronunciation. Being impressed with Charles and his speech, he made a recommendation to his friend, Cardinal Gasparri in Rome. Finally, in 1918 a consultant came to examine Charles’ pronunciation and variations in tone of voice. Mme. Chaunac-Lanzac explains, “Very much interested, Mgr. Minghini inquired about the way his mother had trained him and then understood why it was so easy for him to complete his studies. He left with a friendly smile saying ‘I hope the Holy Father will accept you.'”
Finally, in 1920, a favorable answer came! Jean-Marie (as he became known by) was 42 years old and had worked for decades to perfect his pronunciation so that he could say the words of the Mass clearly. This delay and struggle was largely because of a general preconception about “deaf-mutes.” An earlier in-person interview would have dispersed these preconceptions, but Jean-Marie’s patience and perseverance were unshakable. Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta was ordained on June 29, 1921 with his mother and siblings in attendance. At first he was allowed to say Mass only in private, but these restrictions were lifted almost immediately when it became apparent that he performed every function perfectly and spoke flawlessly. Perhaps the best news for future deaf men who wished to pursue the priesthood was this:
Several Roman congregations decided that there was no incompatibility between the sacerdotal functions and deafness.
As Jesus said to the deaf man in the Gospel of Mark, “Ephphatha!” — Be opened! The way for other deaf priests was opened by the hard-earned ordination of Fr. Jean-Marie La Fonta, but it was the prayerful perseverance and faith of this gentle man that opened the closed mindset of society at large about deafness and religious ritual. Immediately Fr. La Fonta began to minister to and preach to the deaf. As the next post to Word & Sign will show, Fr. La Fonta made ministry to the deaf his constant, driving work as a priest.
True eloquence does not consist … in saying great things in a sublime style, but in a simple style; for there is, properly speaking, no such thing as a sublime style, the sublimity lies only in the things; and when they are not so, the language may be turgid, affected, metaphorical but not affecting. -Oliver Goldsmith, Of Eloquence, 1759
Rhetoric is the study of misunderstanding and its remedies. -I.A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1936