Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

College Park

Track Offers Signs And Wonders For Deaf

By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published June 22, 2006

Members of North Georgia’s Catholic deaf community gathered with enthusiasm to partake in the thought-provoking track for the deaf at the 2006 Eucharistic Congress Saturday, June 17. More than 30 people attended the sessions held throughout the day, as Msgr. Glenn Nelson, vicar general and chancellor of the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., shared in American Sign Language a fascinating look at the “beauty and power” of the Mass. “I want to give you that beauty and power for yourselves,” he said.

He went on to explain that Mass is “a representation in an ‘unbloody’ manner of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.” He shared the highlights of “our salvation history,” concluding with an insightful explanation of transubstantiation, bringing the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist into focus for those “seeing” his words. He explained that the substance of the host changes to the “body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ … God himself” while the “accidents” (external characteristics) of the bread do not change. “It becomes Him,” Msgr. Nelson said. “That is the Mass to us. And we forget to acknowledge the change. People forget what has really happened. It is not bread any more.”

The crowd was enthralled not only by the subject matter and the organized visuals but also by the eloquent and lively delivery of Msgr. Nelson, who captured the audience with his humor and invitingly funny expressions, resembling a young Red Skelton in his mannerisms.

Although Msgr. Nelson is a hearing person, he is also an expert “signer” and has worked in the deaf community since receiving a bachelor’s degree in special education for the hearing impaired from Northern Illinois University in 1987. He has served as director for the Deaf Apostolate of the Diocese of Rockford since 1993.

He didn’t know anyone who was deaf while growing up but became fascinated as a college freshman by an interpreter signing for a deaf student in his trigonometry class. He asked to sit with the student, got a copy of “The Joy of Signing” and never looked back, quickly picking up the language in six months. Within a year, he was fluent enough to become an interpreter in class for other deaf students—a skill that paid for his college education. After graduating, he worked as a teacher in the public schools for a few years. While he really loved working with deaf students, he wanted even more to be able to share with them the “one answer” that God gives—something he couldn’t do in a school. He followed his heart to the priesthood.

At his ordination, a priest he didn’t know came up to him, laying hands on him and whispering, “Thank God you’re here.” Later, Msgr. Nelson learned that this man had a deaf brother to whom he ministered—the priest was close to death and had prayed for God to take care of his brother.

Msgr. Nelson believes that in the “fullness of time, God brought it all together” for him—his ability to communicate with the deaf community and his desire to share the word of God with others.

In Illinois, he noted, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory is well known and beloved by the deaf community because of his “willingness to meet their needs.” And Msgr. Nelson said that making a commitment to serving the needs of this community can be challenging, especially because of the expense, but he also likens those in the deaf community to the early Christian community—without ready access to the spoken Gospel and the Mass, “they have a hunger and thirst for it.”

Ed McCoy, director of the archdiocesan Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, believes that providing this track at the congress gives “Catholic deaf adults from all over North Georgia a structure and time to come together and to share and enrich their Catholic faith together.” He is also “shameless” in hoping that opportunities like these will “lure back the many unchurched deaf Catholics and also deaf ex-Catholics now attending other faith communities in the Atlanta area.”

McCoy also hopes that, for Catholics unfamiliar with the deaf community, this track will call attention to the fact that “there are Catholics who communicate with sign language and that they exist in North Georgia.”

LeAnn Blalock, who is deaf and a parishioner at St. Mary Church, Rome, attended the deaf track both last year and this year, and enjoyed Msgr. Nelson’s presentation. Currently, she said, “I don’t have a Mass at St. Mary’s in sign language, but I hope I will get one in the near future.”

Blalock thinks the impact of the deaf program at the congress is “rewarding for me as well as (for) the community” and was “surprised to see more deaf Catholics at the Eucharistic Congress this year.” Those attending included non-Catholics as well, she noted.

The head of the deaf ministry at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, Deb Garner, serves with Msgr. Nelson on the board of directors for the National Catholic Office for the Deaf. She thought the turnout was great, noticing that the group didn’t seem “to want to leave even for lunch. There were also several young teens in attendance. They seemed totally engrossed in what Msgr. Nelson was presenting—truly inspiring!”

She continued, “Several in the community expressed later that they were able to make connections within the Mass that they had previously been unable to make. … I think that this type of presentation plants a seed. It excites the community. It makes them realize their hunger for a deeper, more intimate relationship with God.”

Professional interpreter Lisa Palak skillfully provided a fluid and fluent vocal interpretation of Msgr. Nelson’s signing throughout the day. She said, “Interpreters typically work 20 minutes and then switch with a partner to avoid fatigue and to give quality service to consumers.” Because organizers were unable to find her a partner to work with at the congress, she has “done the impossible by industry standards,” working the entire day alone. Palak feels supported, though, “I know that—I’m not being cute here—God was my partner.”

The fact that the archdiocese offers this track is “impressive,” she said, adding that she “always feels re-charged afterward.”

She said, “In many cases, our Protestant brothers and sisters are beating us by providing more services to deaf people. This results in many deaf people who were raised Catholic going to other faith communities. And many deaf Catholics are un-churched because they simply don’t have access to Mass and other church activities. I believe the Archdiocese of Atlanta is going a long way toward providing needed services. We are sending a strong message that deaf Catholics are a vital part of our community.”