Holy Angels Parish in Woodbury hosts an American Sign Language Inclusion Mass on the first Sunday evening of each month. I recently attended one celebrated by Father Hugh Bradley and found it a profoundly moving experience.
Two moments in particular stuck out to me. The first was after the homily, when in place of the Nicene Creed, the congregation renewed our baptismal vows as a community. Watching the men and women who were hearing-impaired respond so vibrantly to the questions posed about our Christian identity as a united people with not only their hands, but almost their entire bodies, was quite beautiful to me. I know virtually nothing about ASL, but since we are embodied spirits, the depth of their assertion of their faith was abundantly clear in their physical reaction and motions.
It was far different than the mumbling monotonous recitation that too often occurs at Sunday liturgies. There was something entirely fresh and passionate, and somehow perhaps even slightly defiant — if I may be so bold — in the thirst for and commitment to inclusion that was evident in this moment. It was as if they were proclaiming their faith at the tops of their lungs in silence, and that image will remain seared into my imagination for quite some time.
The second was at the end of Mass, when Father Bradley explained a few simple phrases for those of us who have not studied ASL. The sign for the name of Jesus is easily learned: the tip of the middle finger touching the other hand’s palm and then the same action in reverse. It’s clear then that every time a deaf person uses the name of Jesus in this language, he or she calls to mind the Passion, when his hands were pierced on the cross. That is wonderfully straightforward and yet complex, as is so much of our faith.
In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus visits Decapolis, he heals a man who has hearing and speaking impediments, laying hands upon his ears and spittle upon his tongue (Mk 7:31-37). As in other places in the Scriptures, Christ not only “sighs” in genuine compassion for the suffering and limitations of humanity, but then speaks forcefully into the gap between divine plenitude and human finitude (“Lazarus, come forth!”; “Talitha koum!”). In a sign of the life-giving grace that he manifests on earth, he instructs the man, and thus all of us who are ourselves deaf in so many ways, to the abundant love of God and the cries of the desperate: “Be opened!” And in response the man is healed in body, but more importantly in soul.
I am consistently amazed by submerging into the depths of Catholicism and the local currents that flow powerfully beneath the sometimes too-familiar tranquil horizon of our ecclesial seas. There are local contexts and communities, adaptations and ministries, of which the vast majority of Christians know very little. A lifetime is not enough to learn them all. Oftentimes, all it takes is some intentionality to be aware of what is going on around us to appreciate them.
I felt blessed to stumble into an entirely unexpected one in this case, and to find the restorative presence of God where I was not anticipating it, and to hear his thunderous voice resoundingly, albeit without spoken words.
Ed. note: ASL/voice interpreted Mass, with autism singers and interpreters, is celebrated every First Sunday at 6 p.m., from September-May. (There will be no 6 p.m. Mass Easter Sunday.)
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.