By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 1, 2008
Karen Kurt steps to the wooden podium and proclaims the word of God—silently.
With her hands and facial expressions, she uses American Sign Language as the lector for an online Liturgy of the Word for deaf Catholics.
“It’s a great feeling to be able to help reach thousands of deaf Catholics. My family thinks it’s neat that I’m doing this! Seeing ordinary, humble, deaf people signing the liturgy can be inspiring to others, to know they can too learn the Word,” said Kurt in an e-mail.
The Atlanta Archdiocese is harnessing the Internet to enrich the spiritual lives of the deaf Catholic community, offering the Liturgy of the Word in American Sign Language to a worldwide audience. And organizers believe it is the first time the liturgy will be available to deaf people in a language experts believe is used by close to 500,000 people.
“They are lost, as is anyone attending (Mass) in a different language,” said Ed McCoy, the director of the Disabilities Ministry, about people who are deaf going to a Mass that is only spoken.
Kurt, 43, her husband, Vernon, and their two children live in Woodstock. But the nearest Catholic parish does not have a signed Mass so they drive to Transfiguration Church in Marietta to worship.
The Kurt family belongs to St. Michael the Archangel Church in Woodstock, but said being the only deaf family at a parish can be lonely. While Kurt’s daughter, Claire, will receive her first Communion there at a Mass with an interpreter this spring, the family plans on joining the Marietta parish in the fall.
Kurt is inspired by the story of Mother Angelica and the success of her Catholic TV station EWTN and hopes this ASL project in a small way could mimic that success.
“I thought if she can do it, deaf people can too,” Kurt said.
Meeting A Need
There are some two-dozen deaf Catholics at the six parishes that offer interpreters at Mass in the Atlanta Archdiocese. But that figure likely falls short of the real number. There could be more than 1,000 deaf Catholics here, based on the number of people using American Sign Language.
Nearly 6 million Catholics who are deaf and hard of hearing use the programs of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf. Nine out of 10 deaf Catholics skip Mass, though, because there is not an interpreter.
Frania Franch-Sonner, a member of Transfiguration Church, is a part-time ASL teacher and tutor. The 44-year-old is also a lector with the project.
The video liturgy is “accessible for everyone who is desperate to understand God’s word in ASL version,” she wrote in an e-mail.
Franch-Sonner said studying the English Bible texts challenges her to learn her faith more as she examines the words and their context to correctly translate them into sign language.
“Finding the meaning of ancient vocabulary and researching the historical facts are where I have to begin after I get the reading assignments every time. That is the positive way to influence my inner spirituality,” she said.
The celebration carries a different feeling when ASL is used versus having the readings interpreted from English into sign language.
Franch-Sonner said the signed liturgy often includes facial expressions and body gestures that make it richer and more interesting. Those details are often missing in interpreted Masses, she said.
Kurt said the signed liturgy is more personal than watching an interpreted liturgy.
“I tend to feel more inspired,” she said.
Drawing In People
The goal of the project is to draw lapsed Catholics back to the church. At the same time, it deepens people’s spiritual lives to reflect on the Mass readings, said McCoy, who has led the Disabilities Ministry since an archdiocesan office started in 2001. The ministry provides programs to parishes, from Braille on demand to assisting disabled persons to take on ministerial roles in the church.
The idea of tying together the Internet and ASL surfaced two years ago with a plan to have the complete Mass celebrated. But the project was scaled back. Instead, the project focused on the Liturgy of the Word, an area that is most difficult for people who are deaf. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is easier to follow. The motions of the priest around the altar fulfill the ritual.
“They really miss out on the first part of the Mass. It’s meaningless when you don’t understand the Mass. We are providing the service that makes you a more complete Catholic in your observance,” said McCoy.
The first recorded Liturgy of the Word was in February for Ash Wednesday.
The ministry has spent about $5,000 to date on the pilot project. Transfiguration is covering one-third of the first year’s expenses and the other two-thirds is coming from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal. The Disabilities Ministry is applying for grants and accepting financial contributions to defray the expenses of the subsequent two years of the project, which will complete the three-year cycle of Mass readings, McCoy said.
Transfiguration Church, where Msgr. Pat Bishop is pastor, is the hub of the deaf Catholic community in Atlanta with three weekend Masses interpreted in sign language. It also has a high-tech studio with skilled media volunteers and staff.
“Kudos to Msgr. Bishop. He made it happen,” McCoy said. “They have a state-of-the-art ministry that is very unusual for a parish and they turned the facilities over to help us.”
Deb Garner, who works at the Disabilities Ministry and leads the deaf ministry at the Marietta parish, said the online project lets people who are deaf receive the word of God, then receive Jesus in the Eucharist, whether they attend a Mass with sign language or not. She said it would be extremely helpful for people who live in rural parts of the state.
News of the program is spreading. Without any promotion, there have been about 100 viewers at the Web site every Sunday the liturgy has been updated, McCoy said.
Volunteers record the Liturgy of the Word services. They tape a month’s worth of readings in one day at the Marietta parish.
Standing in front of a blue backdrop, deaf parishioners sign the readings from the Old and New Testaments, including the responsorial psalms. For the second Sunday of Easter, Redemptorist Father Rich Luberti signs the Gospel of John and gives a homily. The priest presses his palms together in the sign for “Amen” and ends the liturgy. It runs for 16 minutes and 30 seconds.
“They want to pray in a way that’s culturally sensitive to them. American Sign Language does that,” said Father Luberti, who has spent most of his priestly ministry serving the deaf community. He lives in Michigan and flies in for the recordings.
There is no church-sanctioned ASL for the Scriptures. Father Luberti wants to change that. He is updating the three-year cycle of Mass readings with Scripture from the Old and New Testaments and Gospels for ASL.
The boom of online videos at YouTube and online technology allows the deaf community to connect in new ways. A search for “deaf Catholic” at YouTube found 54 videos.
Father Luberti said he traveled for months at a time at the start of his ministry to connect with scattered deaf communities around the country. Now people can sign with others using Web cameras and other technology, he said.
“It’s a very creative project. It’s great outreach,” he said.
To find the Liturgy of the Word in American Sign Language, go to www.transfiguration.com. On the left side index, go to “Sign Language Liturgies” and choose the date. You may need to use the “download liturgy” button.