By KATHRYN R. BYRNE, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 12, 2015
COLLEGE PARK—Why does the priest kiss the altar? Which is more important—the tabernacle or the altar? What is the difference between a homily and preaching? These are only a few of the numerous discussion-sparking questions signed by Father Michael Depcik, as he gave a lively and informative presentation to the deaf and hearing attendees of the American Sign Language track at the 2015 Eucharistic Congress.
Maggie Rousseau, director of the archdiocesan Disabilities Ministry, opened the event. Kathy Daykin, the coordinator of deaf services for the archdiocese, introduced Father Depcik to the group of about 40 attendees. Rousseau and Daykin worked extensively to coordinate the track and to ensure that everyone who participated was able to understand the language. The presentation by Father Depcik was given in his native language, ASL, and was voice-interpreted by two volunteers.
Born deaf and raised by deaf parents, Father Depcik is the youngest of five children, all of whom are deaf. He was raised in Chicago and has been a priest for 15 years, serving deaf Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
His PowerPoint presentation included slides as well as brief movies, which helped give deeper understanding of the parts of the Mass. He explained that the Mass is the same throughout the world, with every Catholic church using the same daily readings and prayers.
“According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” Father Depcik signed, “the priests cannot make up the Mass.” He said there is a bit of room for pastoral interpretation. As an example, it calls for a “brief” sign of peace.
“When have deaf Catholics ever been able to give a brief sign of peace?” he asked, drawing a chuckle from the knowing crowd. He said that many of the Latino cultures also appreciate an extended sign of peace.
Why does the priest kiss the altar? A history lesson on the Mass revealed to participants that in the early years of the church, Christianity was illegal and Christians were normally put to death. “It was like the actions of ISIS today,” Father Depcik said. Mass was celebrated in secret in the catacombs where the dead were buried. The altars of A.D. 100 were the stone coffins of recent martyrs. Today’s Catholic altars contain the relics of a saint. “This is why the priest shows reverence for the altar with a kiss.”
Which is more important—the tabernacle or the altar? Using photos and a sense of humor, Father Depcik gave the comparison to a Thanksgiving dinner. “Which is more important—the refrigerator or the table?” he asked. Those present agreed that the table was the more important of the two for the celebration. “But before the dinner is prepared, and after everyone has gone home, the refrigerator is more important—right?” This drove home the point that the tabernacle is of utmost importance before and after the Mass, but the table of celebration, the altar, is more important during Mass.
What is the difference between a homily and a sermon? The priest explained that a homily focuses on the biblical readings of Mass, whereas a sermon doesn’t necessarily do so. Catholic Masses always contain homilies.
‘He humbled himself to share in our humanity’
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory visited the ASL track carrying the Blessed Sacrament, allowing the attendees a brief time of adoration. He extended a welcome to the deaf community of the archdiocese and expressed his appreciation for their presence. “Please continue to pray for me and for the archdiocese,” he implored. He blessed the group by raising the monstrance in the sign of the cross.
Expounding on the importance of Scripture, Father Depcik encouraged the group to read and study the Bible every day. “Vatican II placed more emphasis on Scripture and encouraged the laity to do this,” he said. While Protestants are known for their knowledge of Scripture, Father Depcik stated encouragingly that Catholics know more about the Bible than they think they do. The Bible is present throughout the Mass, not only in the readings but also in many of the songs, hymns and prayers, including the Eucharistic prayer. A daily communicant would hear the entire Bible within a three-year span.
“Catholics know the Bible, and we need to recognize that,” he said.
“The Creed is a synopsis of our faith, and it should inspire us!” he exclaimed. The original creed was the Apostles Creed, and it is short and concise. The bishops changed and expanded it around A.D. 300, and it has remained the same since as the Nicene Creed. During the crisis of the 1500s, many split off to form their own churches. One hundred and sixty new churches were formed within a week, each having their own interpretation of the Bible. Yet the Catholic Church has persevered, and the Creed has helped it persevere. It speaks of the essence of our faith in the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Church.
“Why does the priest pour water into the wine?” asked Father Depcik. Several answers were given, including a reminder that Jesus changed water into wine during his first miracle and the blood and water pouring from his side during the crucifixion. While acknowledging that either of these answers are correct, the priest showed a slide telling the main reason from the Eucharistic prayer: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Once water is poured into wine, it can’t be taken back out. The wine represents the divinity of Jesus and the water represents our humanity, which he shares. This mingling is the wondrous gift of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Father Depcik’s love for the Eucharist was very obvious. “Have you met Jesus before?” he asked the group. He then stated that we meet Jesus again and again when we receive the Eucharist. “That’s why it’s so important to go to Mass!” he exclaimed. “We meet Jesus there! We are able to welcome him into our hearts and souls again.”
‘I knew facts, but I didn’t know God’
At this point, Father Depcik told his personal story of his calling to the priesthood. He grew up with Catholic parents and attended a deaf school in Ohio, where he got all A’s.
“But the grades didn’t mean I knew God. I knew about God like I knew about Queen Elizabeth. I knew facts, but I didn’t know God,” he said.
When he was 17, he had the opportunity to spend a year in Australia. He stayed with a non-Catholic Christian family. They prayed together and read the Bible together. He found it strange and embarrassing at first, but after several months he began to feel God’s love and peace. He says that he “found God for the first time” there.
He returned home with the intention of leaving the Catholic faith. After graduating from high school, he attended Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C. When he arrived, he attended a fair offered by the school, which included information about religious groups on campus. Suddenly he came upon a table for a Catholic organization. A priest welcomed him and asked him if he was Catholic, and he answered “yes.” The priest took down his name. The 18-year old walked away horrified. “Now they know I’m Catholic! What am I going to do?” he thought.
He attended Mass a few times, but he wasn’t comfortable with the traditional Mass and didn’t particularly feel drawn to the priest. One day someone told him that he attended Mass for God, not for the priest. From that point forward he understood that he was going to Mass to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. “Going to Mass helps me be a better person,” he said.
Later he read a book on the reported Marian apparitions of Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. The book spoke powerfully to him of the importance of prayer, the rosary, Mass, confession, reading the Bible and fasting. Soon afterward he had a powerful dream. He dreamt he was at his old school dressed in priestly garments and people were calling him “Father.” He met with the bishop and began study for the priesthood. He was ordained on July 24, the anniversary of the first reported apparition.
Continuing with his exhortation concerning the Eucharist, Father Depcik called the Our Father “amazing, since Jesus himself taught it to us.” He also explained that the sign of peace is a time to extend true peace to those around you.
The dismissal, he explained, is a “sending out.” Those at Mass are to take what they have received to others to share the love of Jesus through word and service.
“We come to Mass to be fulfilled, and we then go out and proclaim God’s word!” he said.
When questioned about the purpose of the sacrament of reconciliation, Father Depcik explained its scriptural roots: that the priest is given the authority to absolve sin. As with each of the sacraments, in reconciliation a penitent is able to meet God face to face through his or her senses. The sacraments are a “direct communication with Jesus,” he said. For the sake of privacy, reconciliation in ASL was provided behind a curtained partition.
Father Depcik’s presentation was both enlightening and entertaining. Those who attended the ASL track expressed their appreciation for learning new information about the Mass and for absorbing a renewed excitement and commitment to the Eucharist.
Kathryn R. Byrne is a master catechist and has interpreted for the deaf at Masses and other functions for more than 20 years.