Deaf Catholics show strength in community at annual conference


Photos by Melissa McNally


Left photo: Sister Bonnie McMenamin, co-director of the Office of Ministry With the Deaf for the Diocese of Camden, energizes the crowd at the fourth annual DeaFest, held March 29 in the Archdiocese of Newark. Right, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas A. Donato of Newark, left, welcomes attendees.

KEARNY – “God made me deaf,” Father Christopher Klusman of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wis., proudly signed to the audience at the fourth annual DeaFest. “Some people have a lot of anger because they want to be like everybody else. They want to be ‘normal.’ You can’t let that anger consume you – it will become poison.”
Father Klusman was keynote speaker at the March 29 conference held at the Newark Archdiocesan Youth Retreat Center. The conference, sponsored by pastoral workers with the Catholic Deaf from all five New Jersey dioceses, drew 250 participants, including some 30 from the Diocese of Camden.
All presentations, including Mass, were signed with voice interpreting and open-captioning for non-signers.
Father Klusman stressed the idea of openness within the Deaf Community in his talk “Discipleship: Journey to the Great Banquet.”
“We have to share our experiences and form a bond to help overcome our everyday frustrations,” he explained.
Father Klusman is one of only 11 Deaf priests in the United States. He is associate pastor at St. Roman Parish in southeast Wisconsin and associate director of the deaf/hard-of-hearing ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
The youngest of four children in a devout Catholic family, he attended a regular “mainstream” school and would sign with his family.
“Growing up, I dealt with both the hearing and non-hearing communities. I think that influenced why I wanted to become a priest. I wanted everyone to be one big happy family,” he said.
Father Klusman studied linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the goal of being an American Sign Language instructor. While in college he attended Bible study with a priest involved in Deaf ministry.
“I realized I had never met a Deaf priest before. I became enlightened like a candle. I thought I could be a role model for someone to follow,” he said.
Ordained in 2011, he became the first-ever Deaf priest to attend St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee.
During his lecture, he emphasized that by banding together, Catholics can become devout, mature followers of Christ.
“Each of us is a single light burning by ourselves. Together, we are a strong, powerful light. For us to be disciples, we have to have strong security in God’s love. He loved us so much that he sent his only son to die for us. We must establish hope and continue to spread the Good News. We need to strengthen our faith and form a deep intimacy with God,” Father Klusman said.
Discipleship, he explained, leads us to the “grand banquet” with God in heaven. “While here on earth, we do the prep work for the banquet. We have a taste, a sampling of what is in store for us. Every day, each of us takes a different path. There is always choice and consequences. We have to remember that there is a bigger feast waiting for us. Why stop and take a detour for something temporary?”
Making correct moral decisions is not easy in today’s society, Father Klusman noted. “Do we want the things of the world or the gifts of God? Patience is worth it for the reward that is waiting in the end. Advertising is always trying to deceive you. In our society, we pursue the wrong things. We, as Catholics, need to keep our eyes on the prize.”
He explained that through baptism, everyone, regardless of their abilities, is a part of God’s family. “God welcomes all people. In the Deaf Community, we know how valuable the gift of sight is. We must never lose sight of God. We are all embraced by God’s hands. Allow Jesus to come into your heart. Remember that you are considered a living tabernacle. That way, Jesus is always with us.”