Reconciliation has historically been one of the most difficult Sacraments for Deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics to access and continues to be so. Prior to Vatican II, children who went to Catholic residential schools for the deaf were taught to write their confessions on a slip of paper and hand it to the priest when they entered the confessional. The priest would in turn respond in writing with their penance. This resulted in two problems. Firstly, it only worked with those who had adequate English literacy skills. Secondly, it seemed to have worked at schools when the chaplain knew what to expect, but the method did always achieve favorable results for adults who attempted the same at their neighborhood parish.
Recounting some of his awkward experiences from the 1930s-40s, one Deaf man wrote, “Several times, [after] I passed my written confession through the grate, the priest began to slap his head, slap the grate, and jump around in the confessional to my great confusion. He thought that my paper was a big bug trying to crawl into his ear… Another priest would take my confession paper, run out of the confessional, back again, out again and in again, not knowing what to do. Another would look out of the confessional. When he knew it would be my turn to enter, he would send me back to the last of the waiting penitents.”(1) Suffice to say, these incidents were enough to cause him to avoid the sacrament for many years. He only returned after he learned about a priest in his diocese who could sign.
Some Deaf adults continue to use write their confessions today if they do not have access to a priest who can sign. Those I have spoken with in my research have said that they would explain what to do beforehand so the priest knows what to expect. Those who have speech and can lipread would ask for a face-to-face so they could speak their confession. Lipreading the priest’s response can be a challenge, but one can always ask for clarification in writing if need be. Cochlear Implant or hearing aid users may or may not desire or require a face-to-face confession — preferences and needs vary and can change according to the acoustic environment as well.
The Church allows those who wish to communicate in American Sign Language (ASL) to use an interpreter. The interpreter is bound to secrecy according to the seal of confession, as is the priest. However, I have met no one who has ever employed an interpreter. Every Deaf person I’ve asked acknowledged the accommodation as a positive step toward recognizing their needs but also admitted that they have never used one. “Why would I? I don’t want anyone else knowing my sins!” they said.
There is no question that the vast majority of Deaf Catholics who use ASL as their primary language of communication prefer going to a priest who can sign. For many, waiting until a priest who signs come into town is worth it. When a Deaf or hearing priest who signs comes into town, news of his presence spreads. Deaf Catholics would drive more than an hour in order to see them and the lines for Reconciliation are always long. When a Deaf priest is available, confessions can last several hours. As an interpreter once said to me while clutching her right fist tightly close to her chest (a variation of the sign for hanging on to something), “The Deaf just hold their confessions in until a Deaf priest comes along!”
Needless to say, the need for a signing priest in every diocese is ever present but often unmet. Is it unreasonable to request that every bishop assigns one priest to deaf ministry and to learn ASL? In 1924, this demand was not considered far-fetched. Several seminaries owned sign language dictionaries and religious orders such as the Jesuits and Sulpicians even had sign language classes for novices and seminarians. As Edward J. Cahill, a commentator writing in “The Catholic Charities Review” optimistically exhorted, “Let the sign language be added to the curriculum and be brought to every cleric who aspires to the priesthood. The sign language is not difficult to acquire, only needed steadfast practice and any seminarian interested could learn the language well in one year with the opportunities he would have among so many for practice. Given a general knowledge of sign language among the priests, there will be created a country-wide interest in the deaf, and once every priest is working, the Catholic deaf-mute problem will practically disappear!” (2)
Cahill’s vision is not simply a practical one but an eschatological one where the Kingdom of God includes all who sign in an intimate sacrament where humans encounter the living Christ. Dare we, the Church in America today, embrace this vision?
September is Deaf Awareness month and this week is the International Week of the Deaf. Many churches around the world that serve Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have events this week for those interested to learn more about deaf history, culture, and sign languages. Find out if you have a Deaf church in your neighborhood, make a visit and see what it’s like.
(1) Voice of the Deaf, unpublished manuscript, 5. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.
(2) A reprint of the original article can be found in The Catholic Deaf-Mute Vol. 24 no. 12 December 1923, 3. From the Deaf Catholic Archives at College of the Holy Cross.