By KATHRYN R. BYRNE, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 7, 2011
“The word ‘liturgy’ means ‘work of the people,’” Father Tom Coyte explained. And liturgy is what the American Sign Language (ASL) track of the 2011 Eucharistic Congress was all about. Throughout his presentation, Father Coyte encouraged the deaf and hearing attendees to participate fully in liturgy.
“The goal of liturgy is to experience God,” he said. “The priest has his work, and you have your work!”
While in seminary, Father Coyte met his first deaf person. He then decided to take sign language classes. There was no one working with deaf Catholics in his area at the time. During the 37 years of his priesthood, Father Coyte has developed a very active deaf ministry at Holy Cross Church in Thornton, Colo., the parish he pastors near Denver. All the deaf Catholics in the archdiocese go there, where everything is interpreted in ASL, including all Masses, all meetings, all social events. He himself signs one Mass every weekend, and interpreters sign the others. The readings during Mass are both signed and voiced. There is a deaf person on the parish council, and the RCIA program is always interpreted, regardless of whether a deaf person is joining the church or not. In other words, everything his parish does is readily accessible to the deaf.
The ASL track on Saturday attracted more attendees as the day progressed. Beginning with 13 participants, by the end of the day the track held 20 people of varying ages, including 12-year-olds, teens, adults and young adults. About half of the participants were deaf. Most of the others are involved in deaf ministry in their parishes or other settings.
Father Coyte began his presentation by outlining his goals for the day: to discuss what the Eucharist/Mass means, to prepare for the upcoming changes in the new Roman Missal, and to discuss the connection between Eucharist/Mass and the people.
“What is the language of the church?” Father Coyte asked. Hands moved as various participants attempted answers. “Is it Latin?” “Hebrew?” “Perhaps it is the language of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.” None of these responses were incorrect, but Father Coyte brought in a different perspective.
“From the beginning, God used sign language! Sunsets, thunder, rain. The Word of God, Jesus, was a sign. He came as a man, for people to touch, hear, watch, experience.” With this in mind, Father Coyte encouraged deaf people to take a major role in the church. “The Catholic Church needs deaf people to participate in church, to help people understand God’s sign language.”
“We have seven formal signs: the sacraments,” Father Coyte explained. “Yet there are informal sacraments or signs, including things: sensors, candles, vestments, water, etc., words: the words of the Mass and words of prayer, and actions: what we do with the things, i.e., carrying the host in procession and making the sign of the cross with holy water. Thus the things used, the words spoken, and what we do with the things, all constitute liturgy. We need to choose signs, things and actions that create the best (liturgy) for the people.”
Before Vatican II, Father Coyte said, the attitude was, “I’m never going to heaven; God is ‘way up there’ (out of reach).” He explained that Vatican II was an attempt to understand the church’s beginning, before the New Testament was even written down. The Council changed liturgy so the people could experience what they are supposed to experience at Mass. This experience involves participation by the people.
He compared participation at Mass to participation at a sports event, saying that fans don’t just sit and watch at such an event. “We enter into the ‘signs’ of the event: the lights, music, hot dogs. We enter into the action,” he said. “How many of us sit and watch (during Mass), without signing or otherwise participating? We can’t sit back and be passive at Mass. We come to experience the presence of God. If we are passive, we have a bad experience.” Father Coyte then explained that we are all responsible for liturgy. “The church should create a good experience for the people. We want everyone to have a powerful experience.”
He taught those present that prior to Vatican II, in order to find the presence of Christ in church, the people looked (only) to bread and the tabernacle. But the presence of Christ is also in the community: the unity of the people, which is the Body of Christ. It is in the Word: Christ, himself, speaking to everyone and teaching everyone. The presence of Christ is in the priest and also in the Eucharist.
“We should create the best liturgy possible, and we should participate the best possible. If I go to church in the same thing I wear to the gym, my experience is less. If I arrive late, my experience is less,” he said.
Father Coyte then presented an informative explanation of the upcoming changes in the new Roman Missal. He said that the new translation, promulgated by Pope John Paul II, took 10 years to translate. One problem with the current version, which began to be used in 1965 as a result of Vatican II, is that it is not always an exact translation of the original Latin prayers. The church used this opportunity to learn more about the prayers of the Mass, many of which predate the writings of the New Testament.
“As an example,” he explained, “Eucharistic Prayer II says, ‘From east to west …,’ but the early Latin translation says, ‘From the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun …’ The first speaks of space, where the other speaks of time.” The newer translation represents a desire by the church for the expression of faith to be as clear as possible.
Participants in the track also learned that the current English version of the Roman Missal is different from that of other languages. “In the Spanish Missal, for example, the priest says, ‘The Lord be with you,’ and the people respond, ‘And with your spirit.’” This more exact translation from the Latin original “reminds the priest of his role,” Father Coyte said.
“This is what we need to do with ASL. It is important to do liturgy as best we can. God wants to feed the people through us.” (The changes to the new Roman Missal) will feel and sound different. Change is always difficult. We must be patient and work together.”
Father Coyte explained that with the new Roman Missal, there is a strong sense of the sacred. The prayers include a lot of Scripture. “We need to help the deaf understand that connection. We need to attempt to portray the exact meaning. The deaf need to help. We need to work together to make it happen.”
With a brief lesson in Latin, Father Coyte explained that what we say, Lex Orandi, should reflect what we believe, Lex Credendi, which should then determine how we live, Lex Vivendi. “Say, believe, do—it’s all connected,” he stated. “Let’s go out and do what we are celebrating here!”
Since ASL is not a direct translation from English but is rather an interpretation, Father Coyte encouraged deaf people to actively participate in helping their interpreters clearly express the newer translation of the Roman Missal in ASL. The interpreters present readily agreed, as they all realize that the deaf know their own language better than anyone else.
Father Coyte acknowledged the challenges ahead for ASL interpreters. The revised Missal uses more passive voice, which is difficult to portray in ASL. Therefore more skill is needed. “We should never be satisfied with our own skill level,” he said. He encouraged interpreters to study what they are interpreting in advance, so they can make eye contact with the deaf. If they are reading from the book, facial expression is lacking. It is important to portray a deep understanding of prayer. “Prayer needs to look different (from other signing). Prayer should have a sense of the holiness of God, the sacred, the presence of God.”
As further encouragement to interpreters, Father Coyte expressed that the message has to flow from within. “Otherwise, the deaf, you know, will see right through you!” he exclaimed. This drew a knowing chuckle from the group. “We learn early on that the deaf can see!”
He encouraged those who minister to the deaf to know the Scriptures and to live a life of prayer. “Know that book. Love that book. Prayer has to be an important part of your life. Love the Mass. If I keep praying, it will change my understanding and will change my behavior. Hopefully there is a connection between our prayer and our life.”
In the final section of his presentation, Father Coyte explained that the word “Mass” is derived from the Latin word, “Missa,” meaning “sent” or “mission.” With the Mass, participants are thus being sent. They are called to mission, to do the work of the church. “They don’t do the work of the church in church. We do it at home, at work, with our families,” he said. “As Mass begins, we confess our sins. It’s like saying, ‘God, I need to change. Change me.’ Then we go out and do the work of the church.”
Camille Greeley of Transfiguration Church, Marietta, who assisted Ed McCoy of the archdiocesan Disabilities Ministry in organizing the day, stated that it is “always great to see new faces.” She described the ASL track as “an intimate experience because of the small group setting, which enables participation from the group.” Later in the afternoon, Father Coyte encouraged everyone to sit in a circle, which allowed the signed discussions to be seen by all.
Transfiguration Parish was well represented by a number of interpreters and deaf participants, including Frania Franch, who is also a member of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. She has attended the ASL track numerous times and stated that it was “good to be back!” Franch shared with the group how attending deaf Masses opened her to a deeper understanding of liturgy. “It is a good experience!” she exclaimed in ASL.
Hugo Soto, a deaf teenager from St. Oliver Plunkett Church, Snellville, has also attended the ASL track several times. He stated that he enjoyed it and had a great day. Juan F. Posada, a deaf young adult, expressed the wish for more visual aid and for keeping questions precise.
Gary Ellis, one of the ASL interpreters, is from St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw. He shared that his parish’s Knights of Columbus gave the deaf ministry $1,000 to purchase listening devises for the hearing impaired. The Knights also joined the National Catholic Office of the Deaf (NCOD) as a group.
Non-Catholic participants in the ASL track included Valeria Posada, a young deaf woman who has returned to the ASL track three times. A member of a Christian church, she hopes that more deaf people will continue to come in the future. Andrew Krupansky, a deaf member of the First Atlanta Chinese Christian Church, said, “It’s very interesting to explore and learn something new.”
Father Coyte stressed the importance of community in liturgy. “(During Mass) we don’t use the words ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I.’ Most of the time it is ‘us,’ ‘our,’ and ‘we.’ Just as Jesus took bread and wine and changed it into the Body of Christ—in the same way, when we receive, we are changed and we become the Body of Christ.”
Kathryn R. Byrne has a master’s degree in pastoral ministry from the University of Dallas. She interprets for the deaf at St. Oliver Plunkett Parish, Snellville, and is a life coach and spiritual director in Loganville.