Lana Portolano is the author of Be Opened! The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture (CUA Press, 2020). She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in English from The Catholic University of America and is professor emeritus at Towson University in Maryland.
A Pandemic Year with the Global Deaf Catholic Community
During the last week of September, culturally Deaf communities around the globe commemorate International Week of Deaf People with events for people who use sign language. As the author of Be Opened! The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture, I find this week a perfect opportunity to review what has happened in the Deaf Catholic world since CUA Press published my book in December.
It hasn’t been an ordinary time for anyone. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, people around the globe began to quarantine and mask their faces as social distancing became a way of life. Soon we were all disabled by the global pandemic—confined to our homes, prevented from ordinary encounters with other human beings, isolated even from our loved ones. As my social media and Zoom use skyrocketed, I began to notice Deaf Catholic communities in my newsfeed leading the way with persistent optimism.
If there is one group that understands the devastating effects of social isolation and restricted communication as a way of life, it is the deaf people of the world. Every day, in every nation, deaf people are a small minority. In the U.S., for example, only about 2.2% of the population are deaf, and only a fraction of those—fewer than 1% of the population–use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary language. With so few people using their language in stores, in doctor’s offices, or in business and government, most signing Deaf people are experts at dealing with loneliness and the stress that comes from social distance and a lack of direct communication. Deaf people have learned how to cope in times like these.
As video communication early adopters before the pandemic, Deaf Catholics and those who serve them turned to livecam religious services, video-meeting fellowship, and prayer groups via social media early on, long before neighborhood parishes began using livecam for socially-distanced Sunday Masses. An exhaustive list would be too much for a short blog post, but here are just a few of the innovative media developments in the global Deaf Catholic community during the pandemic:
- The Vatican released two channels for Deaf Catholics as part of a “No One Left Out” project: one in ISL (Italian Sign Language) and one in ASL, the most-used sign language internationally. Pope Francis televises the Angelus and his General Audiences on these channels.
- In North America, the Archdiocese of Washington began live streaming its ASL Masses at St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church, joining at least seven other North American dioceses with weekly ASL Masses online.
- In Great Britain, the Catholic Deaf Association used Zoom and YouTube to share video of Mass in BSL (British Sign Language). A project to translate the Bible in BSL continued with the Gospel of Mark during the pandemic.
- In Australia, the Ephpheta Centre and the John Pierce Centre offered live-streamed Mass in Auslan (Australian Sign Language).
- In Brasil, several dioceses have an online presence for Deaf Catholics, including this feed of Masses and prayers at Pastoral do Surdo—Diocese de Osasco.
- In India, the Catholic Deaf Association of India created a YouTube channel for catechism and Scripture readings in Indian Sign Language.
- Singapore Deaf Catholic Community offered weekly Singapore Sign Language interpreted Masses in their social media feed.
- Deaf Catholic World, an international lay-run social media community on Facebook with 3.5K members FB page) regularly schedules live-streamed rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet in ASL.
- Deaf Catholic Youth Initiative for the Americas also has an active social media presence including prayers in ASL for Deaf users of sign language in all countries of North & South America.
This impressive list of online prayer and worship bears witness to a robust global community of Deaf Catholics. As I browse through these signs of faith in my social media feed, I am inspired anew by the determination of Deaf Catholics to stay connected with each other and in the Church as a united whole. Despite the hardships many face just communicating in their daily lives, Deaf Catholics offer the rest of us a highly visible form of modern evangelization from the margins.
You can find Lana Protolano on Twitter @LanaPortolano.