McFarland Center Explores How Deaf Catholics Are Shaping the Contemporary Church

Jocelyn Buggy ‘22

News Editor

On Wednesday, February 24th, the McFarland Center hosted a virtual conversation about how Deaf Catholics are continuing to shape the global Church through language, community, and culture.  The event was part of the Center’s “Catholics & Cultures” initiative, which aims to draw attention to the diversity and cultures of the contemporary Church.  The Zoom call featured Lana Portolano, Professor of Rhetoric at Towson University, Maryland, and author of the recently published newly published Be Opened: The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture.  Portolano was joined by College of the Holy Cross Deaf Studies Professor Stephanie Clark as well as Joseph Bruce, S.J., the first deaf Jesuit priest and archivist with the Holy Cross Deaf Catholic Archives.  The event was moderated by Thomas M. Landy, Director of the McFarland Center.  ASL and voice interpretation was provided by Donald Gibbons and Ingrid Nevar.

Portolano opened the conversation by providing a history of the intersection between Deaf culture and Catholicism.  Through extensive research for her book Be Opened, Portolano learned about the contributions of many deaf and hearing priests, laypeople, and pastoral workers.  She worked with Joseph Bruce during this process in order to think through the larger historical narrative of Deaf Catholic culture and fact-check archival research.  Portolano made a point to distinguish between the deaf and the “culturally Deaf,” meaning people who use ASL as their primary language.  Professor Clark spoke to this point about Deaf culture, framing the culture itself as a manifestation of the shift from a medical model of disability to a social model.  She said that her Deaf parents learned their faith through social, signed interactions at the Boston School for the Deaf.  Bruce affirmed the social significance of Deaf Catholic culture and discussed the issue of access for Deaf Catholics looking to worship.  He said that the extent of Deaf people’s ability to participate in mass and certain sacraments is limited by the fact that many cannot access services in their own language.    

When asked what she hoped that attendees would take away from the Wednesday event, Professor Portolano said: “I hope attendees are excited to learn that there are churches in cities all over the United States that have Mass in sign language, and even more that have small communities of Deaf people who will come to church every week, so long as they know a church has Mass with a sign language interpreter. Not only that, but many of these small communities of Deaf people are connected to a long history of Deaf culture in the Church that has been passed on from generation to generation, in schools, in families, and in places of worship. However, these services are often in danger of losing support from their diocese, because they are small groups.”

Portolano continued: “It’s too easy for the Church to overlook these people’s needs for worship in their own language when they tend to stay to themselves and are not as visible in the public eye. But it’s understandable: Deaf people prefer to be around people who communicate with them in a visual language they can understand face-to-face. Deaf people can’t learn to hear. They’re deaf. Hearing aids don’t help in large groups like at Mass or church socials. So, hearing Christians are specifically called to reach out and walk with Deaf people. Jesus showed us that by example in the Gospel of Mark. It can really broaden your world to learn about ASL and Deaf culture, and befriending people in these small communities helps pull them into the heart of the Church from the margins. That’s how we all share with them in the graces of a connected body of believers in Christ. Hearing Catholics can grow so much and change for the better by really encountering and loving a small, marginalized group like Deaf culture in the Church.”

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