By KATHRYN R. BYRNE, Special To The Bulletin | Published June 21, 2012
“How does God love us?” asked Dominican Sister Shirley Bodisch in her opening remarks to the American Sign Language (ASL) track of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress. This was the first of many poignant questions the Dominican nun from New Orleans asked during her presentation. Using voiced English as well as ASL and making use of a PowerPoint presentation, hands-on activities and spoken and signed interaction, Sister Shirley brought Gospel stories to life for the deaf and hearing participants of the track.
Prior to her presentation, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory came in for a brief informal visit. Speaking through interpreters, he warmly welcomed the participants, saying that he is always grateful to have the ASL track at the congress. He mentioned that it is important that the needs, wishes and ideas of the deaf be known. “In fact, we have a deaf woman on our Archdiocesan Pastoral Council,” he stated, referring to Frania Franch-Sonner of Transfiguration Church, Marietta, who has been on the council for several years. After he left, many expressed delight that the archbishop would take the time to come by and speak to them.
Expanding upon her initial question, Sister Shirley said, “Many times in our daily lives we go about playing and working, but we don’t think about God. God’s love is shown to us in stories from the Gospel.” Her presentation made this more and more clear as the day progressed.
Sister Shirley retold the well-known story of the prodigal son, which “tells us of God’s love and patience.” Many in the group were surprised to learn that the word prodigal actually means “extravagant.” “Who is really ‘prodigal’ in this story?” she asked. “The story is really about the prodigal father.”
Continuing with this thought, she said that the extravagant father represents God. She said, “The younger son was a sinner who was sorry for his sins and who asked his father to forgive him. This is similar to us when we go to confession. We tell our sins, ask forgiveness and are forgiven. God is always happy when a sinner comes back home.”
In one of the activities, Sister Shirley passed out small envelopes, each containing a different Scripture verse. All were encouraged to choose a partner and discuss what meaning the verse has in their daily lives. For five minutes, hands were moving in quiet exchanges. Afterwards, several shared how the particular verse they received was meaningful to them in a personal way.
Kathy Daykin, coordinator of the archdiocesan deaf ministry, said that the ASL track was her “first order of business” after being hired last September. “We invited (Sister Shirley) to be our speaker because of her extensive background and passion for teaching the deaf. We are delighted to have her and (Redemptorist) Father Rich (Luberti).” In addition to providing the sacrament of reconciliation in ASL for participants of the track, Father Rich comes quarterly from Maybee, Mich., to celebrate a Mass for the deaf community at Transfiguration Church. Many of the interpreters at the track were from Transfiguration, which is a hub for deaf ministry in the archdiocese.
Melinda Payne and Claire Letendre, both of Transfiguration, attended the ASL track. Payne found it interesting to see Sister Shirley use both speech and sign language together for her presentation. Letendre enjoyed how Sister Shirley connected stories from the Bible with the Eucharist.
Years ago, Sister Shirley left her job in a classroom to look for work in a parish. Her superior told her of a parish that wanted a sister. She was excited—until she learned that it was a deaf parish. Her superior encouraged her to go to the interview anyway. Her first impression wasn’t good, as the priest of the parish didn’t show up for the interview. Later he called in tears, begging her to please come back. She told God that if she could learn sign language easily, she would take it as a sign that she was supposed to work in this parish. She took several courses in ASL and loved it. Furthermore, the deaf people welcomed her with embraces and encouraging words. She has worked in deaf ministry since, for the last 30 years. She gives retreats for the deaf, teaches sign language to seniors, and works with a deaf woman as a spiritual companion. For five years she held a “traveling Bible study,” taking the word of God to four deaf communities in southern Louisiana and Mississippi.
In her presentation, after telling the Bible stories of the pearl of great price and the treasure in the field, she asked the participants what they would be willing to sacrifice for the Eucharist. “The Eucharist is our most precious gift. Jesus gave it so we can remember how much he loves each of us. The more we receive Communion, the more our lives must change,” she said.
She then surprised everyone by saying that a “hidden treasure” was under the chairs. All scrambled to search, finding small envelopes containing pins depicting the Eucharist, given as a reminder of First Eucharist. Participants were encouraged to pin them on each other.
In telling the Scripture story of the dragnet, Sister Shirley said that fish was a main source of life in biblical times. The fish became the secret identifying symbol for the early Christians because they needed protection from the Roman soldiers. She explained that the Latin word “Ichthius,” meaning fish, is divided to represent Jesus: “Ic” means Jesus Christ, “th” depicts God, and “ius” means Son and Savior.
She said, “The word means, ‘Jesus Christ, God’s Son and Savior.’” Just as the early Christians ate fish as a food for life, “Jesus gives life to us when we eat him in the Eucharist,” she explained.