Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
July 13, 2009
Archbishop Smith signs Mass for the deaf
Deaf community rejoices in their prelate's identifying with their culture
WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Archbishop Richard Smith takes the Mass to the Deaf in their language.
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - Even for those who cannot hear, Archbishop Richard Smith ensures that the message of the Gospel is heard loud and clear.
Sunday, June 28 he spoke his homily on Jesus bringing a 12-year-old girl back to life. The story, from Mark 5, has been told many times before, but what made this particular instance so different is that Smith did not use his voice - he used his hands.
The archbishop, having a special love for the deaf community, showed his closeness to St. Mark's Catholic Community of the Deaf at the Providence Centre Chapel by celebrating Mass in sign language.
John Shores, chairperson of St. Mark's Catholic Community of the Deaf, said the group is blessed to have an archbishop who can communicate directly with them.
"He is unique because he knows our culture, our deaf culture, our way of living without hearing," said Shores. "He has a fuller understanding of what's going on in our lives. It's great to have him identify with our culture."
THE INTEREST GREW
Smith learned American Sign Language as a young seminarian in Halifax.
"A friend of mine made me aware of some courses in sign language that were being offered at theology school, and so I just started to take the course out of interest," he said.
As he learned more, he started contemplating the role of the deaf community in the life of the Church.
"The Church calls for the full, conscious and active participation. How are they really having communicated to them the truth of the Gospel in a language that they can understand? How are they able to celebrate the sacraments? For example, you don't want to go to Confession with an interpreter," he said.
In Halifax, when the pastoral worker for the deaf resigned, the archbishop at the time appointed Smith to be the chaplain for the deaf.
Smith knew how to say "hello" and sign a few basic phrases, nothing more. But he said the deaf community helped him learn. He kept it up through his priesthood and stayed on as their chaplain for several years.
"It was in that way I got to know the language. I am not in any way fluent, but I certainly make myself understood and can have a conversation with them," said Smith.
He admits that he was able to sign a lot better years ago than he can now. He seldom uses sign language these days, only when he encounters a deaf person or when ministering to St. Mark's, which is about once or twice a year.
"It's like any other language. If you're not immersed in it, if you don't practise it all the time, then it grows weak pretty quickly. But the deaf are very patient with me," he said.
Shores said Smith's signing is understandable to the deaf community.
"It's just like riding a bicycle. You never forget how to ride a bicycle. Sometimes you might fall off, but you will keep riding once again," said Shores.
Elsie Barr and her family have been coming to St. Mark's for 17 or 18 years. Her daughter, now 21, is deaf. Although her daughter is on her own now, Barr continues attending the Mass for the deaf community.
KNOW THEY MATTER
Like the non-hearing parishioners, she is grateful to have an archbishop who speaks her daughter's language. "It is wonderful and shows that he cares enough to learn the language and be a part of the community," said Barr.
"The priests that I have met only know a scant few words, whereas the archbishop knows fluent sign language, and that is just awesome. It's very impressive that he communicates directly with the deaf people. He doesn't need to have a third party, and it makes them feel valued."
The gratitude for what one offers the other is mutual between the archbishop and the deaf community.
"I feel blessed to see the connection being registered on their faces when they're able to receive the Gospel and understand it. That brings a deep, deep reward within my own heart," said Smith.
Sister Elizabeth Kass, a Sister of Providence who serves as pastoral worker with the deaf community, said initially she could not believe the good news when she found out that the archbishop was going to celebrate Mass for them in sign language.
BLESSING OF UNDERSTANDING
"He understands the difficulties of the deaf. Not everybody understands our difficulties, but he does," she said.
She would like to see more priests learning sign language.
"When Archbishop Thomas Collins was here, he told me in the seminary there was a priest who tried to teach them (sign language). But he didn't have much success. All seminarians should take a sign language course."