Published March 3, 2005
Many of you who have met me during the past five months have mentioned that you first saw me on television during my tenure as President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before I became your Archbishop. Your comments in those situations have been very kind and heart-warming. Let me now tell you about another wonderful experience that I just had last week in Chicago. I took my place in the assembly room where the bishops were meeting and quietly sat in the midst of my brother bishops. I wore a new name tag. It read: Wilton D. Gregory – Atlanta. I was not on the dais, and I was not in front of any cameras. I didn’t have to prepare any talks or presentations. I could even leave the meeting if I had to make a telephone call or just wanted to stretch my legs! It was wonderful.
I could not have been happier to be at a Bishops’ Conference meeting simply as an ordinary participant. I attended the June meeting accompanied by Father John Walsh from Holy Trinity Parish in Peachtree City who was serving as the Priest Observer from our region. He and I enjoyed a wonderful time together, and I could not have been prouder to have one of my new brothers representing the priests of our two Provinces (Miami and Atlanta). But the greatest source of my delight was to be the archbishop from Atlanta and to have no other title of significance or added responsibility!
I was able to enjoy the meeting as I had not during the six years that I was in executive leadership. One of the things that I did was to visit the breakfast put on by the National Catholic Office for the Deaf (NCOD), a group that Archbishop Donoghue once served as Episcopal liaison. I was deeply impressed by their hospitality and also by the explanation of the challenges that people who are deaf face as they participate in Church functions.
I did not know, for example, that American Sign Language is the third most common language used in the United States, after English and Spanish. Deaf Catholics face many hurdles as they struggle to take their rightful place within the assembly of believers. As I listened to the presentation, I recall that several weeks ago, a lady stopped me at one of our parishes and remarked that we needed to provide sign language translations at more of our liturgies. She was so right!
Many of our parishes do provide a person to sign for special events, but we all need to make this a more common practice and to list all those services in our bulletins that are attended by a person who signs for the deaf. According to the NCOD, perhaps as many as 96 percent of deaf Catholics do not regularly attend parish events because they simply cannot understand what is taking place. We must do more to welcome our brothers and sisters who are deaf into the life of our parishes. We have made many important strides over the past few decades to respond to the needs of those with physical disabilities; deafness is an often forgotten disability that shuts out too many of our brothers and sisters from the heart of our community.
The Bishops’ Conference provides opportunities for many representatives of the Church to speak with bishops about their gifts and their needs. I was happy on this occasion to be enlightened about the pastoral challenges that a group of Catholics faces and that we must address with greater resolution. To all those people in our Archdiocese who do sign at our liturgies and who have worked generously to reach out to our deaf Catholics in making parish life more accessible for them, I say thank you and God bless you!
Above all, to all our Catholics who are deaf, I promise that we will all attempt to do more to permit you to draw closer to the heart of this local Church where you so unquestionably belong.