Interpreters help the deaf grasp faith

Mass: Sign language allows hearing-impaired Roman Catholics at an Ellicott City church to follow services.

Religion

May 07, 2004|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Before moving to Maryland, the Weidig family regularly drove more than an hour so their two deaf sons could attend a Catholic church that had a Mass with sign-language interpretation.

Now residents of Ellicott City, the Weidigs attend Mass at that community's Church of the Resurrection, which has a ministry for the deaf.

"If it wasn't for the signed Masses, it would be a huge drain on my own faith," Hans Weidig said, because he and his wife would have to sign the liturgy for their sons. "Having an interpreted program allowed us to sit back and worship with our children and be examples to our children, rather than being interpreters."

The signed Masses at Church of the Resurrection began in 1990 with one deaf parishioner's request for interpretation. American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and parishioner Chris Duck said that about seven families come for the interpreted 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Four people, including Duck's wife, Kathy, rotate interpreting duties.

Before last Sunday's Mass, Duck signed for parishioners in the first two rows of pews, which are reserved each week for the deaf and their families.

Monsignor James O. McGovern, the parish's pastor, said those who need sign interpretation will "call ahead of time to make sure we have someone interpreting, because they have their friends coming ... for Mass or particularly if they have a baptism or other celebrations of the sacrament."

He added, "It's great to see that they're able to follow everything that's going on in the ceremony."

During McGovern's homily, Duck not only signs, but also mimics the priest's laughter and pauses. Duck uses his facial expressions to communicate the inflections of McGovern's voice, and McGovern watches the interpreter to make sure their pacing is coordinated.

Interpreters must be familiar with signs unique to Mass.

"There are many skilled interpreters who will not even consider interpreting Catholic liturgy," Duck said. He said the speed of the service and the portions where the congregants respond to the celebrant make it difficult. "It also is challenging because it's difficult to interpret" because ASL is not a word-for-word translation of speech, he said.

"I actually have to spend at least an hour preparing for a liturgy. I refer to three translations of the Scripture, and I then need to decide in my own mind how I'm best going to communicate that in American Sign Language," Duck said.

Charmaine Hlibok, a deaf member of the parish, said the Ducks "are great with their usage of ASL translation, especially with biblical verses.

"Words like `thou shalt not' are quite difficult to convey in ASL," she said in an e-mail interview. "But they do that beautifully without minimizing the meaning or message that is being versed."

But interpreting is not all work. "I get so much more out of Mass interpreting it because I have to prepare beforehand," said Eileen Colarusso, a Resurrection parishioner and ASL interpreter. "So I really take apart the readings and the Gospels, see how the music all fits together with the theme."

Support for deaf parishioners at Resurrection extends beyond Mass. Interpreters are available for any church event, from religious retreats to pancake breakfasts.

Peggy Gahagan, whose 18-year-old son Kevin is deaf, said she witnessed the church's commitment to the hearing impaired in its religious education.

"Every sacrament my children have gone through, they've provided interpreters for," she said. "They'd pay for an extra interpreter to be there so our child would understand what was going on" during religious education classes, for instance. "It has really blessed our family and enabled us to participate in every way in our faith."

Weidig pointed out that confession, in particular, is an area where the deaf need consideration to preserve the privacy of the sacrament.

"Resurrection has invited at least once a year a deaf priest to come and hear confessions, which is a huge benefit to our deaf children and any of the deaf congregants because they can have confession without an interpreter," he said.

On Sundays in October, Disability Awareness Month, Duck teaches the entire congregation the signs for "alleluia" and "amen," which are used during Mass throughout the year.

"I like the idea that Chris tried to involve all the parishioners" in using Catholic signs, said McGovern. "They're very supportive of the [deaf] ministry. Almost everybody joins in on the `Alleluia.'"

Seeing others using sign "has brought to us a greater sense of belonging," said Hlibok, "especially because we have the opportunity to share our language and faith with the rest of the church community."

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