By KATHRYN R. BYRNE, Special to the Bulletin | Published June 10, 2016
COLLEGE PARK—“Mercy is God’s blood type!” exclaimed Father Christopher Klusman, the presenter in this year’s American Sign Language track at the Eucharistic Congress. His excitement was contagious as he explained and exemplified the meaning of God’s beautiful gift of mercy to the rapt group, as they met in a ballroom at the Georgia International Convention Center on Saturday, June 4.
Members of the deaf and hard of hearing community in the Atlanta area gathered, along with ASL interpreters, to receive Father Klusman’s message. The ebullient priest, who hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was born into a family where deafness is genetic and has deaf cousins on both sides of the family. He explained in his native ASL that he isn’t saddened to be deaf, “I’m thrilled! It’s a gift from God. I thank him.” He encouraged attendees to recognize that the deaf have the gift of extending mercy through their eyes and hands. He signed, “Deaf eyes are their ears, and deaf hands are their voices.”
Ordained in 2011, Father Klusman is one of a very few profoundly deaf priests worldwide. He is a part-time Catholic high school chaplain and associate director of the deaf/hard of hearing ministry in Milwaukee.
The ASL track required much preparation. Kathy Daykin, coordinator of deaf services, and Maggie Rousseau, archdiocesan director of the Disabilities Ministry, worked for almost a year to plan the track. The arrangements included a black tent present in the room, so confessions could be signed privately with Father Klusman.
About 40 from the deaf and hard of hearing community attended the track, with 25 to 30 also attending the deaf Mass and social held at the Chancery in Smyrna the next day, following the congress. Attendees came from Holy Trinity Church, Peachtree City; St. Gabriel Church, Fayetteville; and St. Matthew Church, Winder.
Rousseau said that one man who attended was from out of state—St. Matthias Church in Milwaukee.
She said, “He was driving to Florida to visit a friend and stopped when he found out that Father Christopher was presenting. He came Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the deaf Mass.”
She added, “One new lady from Blairsville came to the deaf Mass. She has an amplification hearing disorder. I met her at Starve Wars on Friday and invited her. She loved it!”
Eight interpreters volunteered for the weekend and work in the following parishes:
Transfiguration, Marietta; St. Joseph, Marietta; St. John Neumann, Lilburn; and St. Oliver Plunkett, Snellville. Another volunteer studying to become an ALS interpreter from St. Monica Church, Duluth, also attended.
Christina Hopper, who teaches American Sign Language and Deaf Culture courses at Georgia State University, Atlanta, acted as the voice interpreter for those who didn’t know ASL. She spoke quietly into a microphone leading to various Assisted Listening Devices throughout the room, so as not to disturb the atmosphere of the presentation.
The year of mercy is a gift to the church
Using plenty of visuals, including works of art, brief videos, and various quotes, Father Klusman made clear the Jubilee Year of Mercy, as proclaimed by Pope Francis, is an extraordinary gift to the church. He said that it is extraordinary in that it is very special, and it is extra-ordinary in that it is extra.
He signed, “The Holy Door is only supposed to be opened every 25 years. The next time was supposed to be in 2025. But the pope opened it in 2015. He thought the people needed it.” Father Klusman said that the pope named it a jubilee year because it is a special time to celebrate. The Vatican Holy Door will be reopened in 2025 as scheduled.
“What does mercy mean?” Father Klusman asked. “It’s a tough word. There is no simple definition.”
His PowerPoint presentation stated that the word mercy reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, and that mercy is the ultimate supreme act by which God comes to meet us.
“Sometimes we don’t feel that we deserve mercy, because we aren’t worth it. But mercy is divine. It is a free gift from God.”
When Father Klusman was a child, he begged and begged his parents for the gift of a Transformer. He said, “I was excited when I received it, and I played with it for about three months. Then I put it aside.” His parents helped him see its value again. He realized they had worked hard to provide him with this gift.
Father Klusman signed, “In the same way, we sometimes receive God’s gift of mercy, then put it aside. We should thank him for it always.”
He explained the significance of the opening and closing dates of the jubilee year. December 8, 2015, the opening date, is the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. He said, “Her Immaculate Conception prepared her to become Jesus’ mother.”
The closing date, Nov. 20 of this year, is the feast of Christ the King. He said, “This shows Jesus as strong. He gets rid of the enemy.”
The gift of the Year of Mercy
The priest explained that an indulgence is given for walking through a holy door. When combined with confession, Mass, Eucharist, and the prayers Our Father and Hail Mary for the pope, the time in purgatory is lessened. He said, “It’s like taking a shower. If I’m extra dirty, I need a longer shower. An indulgence allows me to have a shorter shower.”
Father Klusman shared his own experience of walking through a holy door. He was so excited that he walked through it a second time, and then a third time. He kissed the door frame as he passed through. “It is a gift! We can ask God for mercy and have hope that he will give it. It is a beautiful gift. God is always with you.”
The pope felt the church needed the Year of Mercy because people tend to focus on themselves. To bring this point home, Father Klusman showed a brief video, entitled “Me!” The actors showed in ASL how people often think only of themselves and believe themselves to be the boss.
Father Klusman said, “But we need to give up control to the Lord. It’s about Jesus, not self. As we give up control, we find more peace.”
He provided a deeper meaning to the word “mercy” by explaining that it comes from the Latin misericordia. Misere means misery, necessity, suffering, and need. Cor/cordis means heart. Thus, Father Klusman explained, mercy is having a heart of solidarity and compassion for those who are suffering.
Some deaf people don’t like the ASL sign for mercy because it is the same sign for pity. But Father Klusman stated that pity can be positive or negative.
He signed, “We need to see God’s perspective of mercy. Mercy is love, tenderness, pity, compassion and clemency (meaning peace). It is a grace and gift from God. Grace is the Holy Spirit within.”
Drawing from Old Testament terms for mercy, Father Klusman said that “hesed” is a masculine word pertaining to a judicial commitment or covenant. It means having a profound attitude of kindness. It also means grace and love. The word “raham” is a feminine word meaning “womb.” It exemplifies the love of a mother. It shows kindness, tenderness, patience, understanding and a willingness to forgive. Mercy encompasses all of these.
The Vatican logo explained
Father Klusman explained the Vatican logo for the Jubilee Year of Mercy in detail. The words “Merciful like the Father,” are taken directly from Luke 6:36. Jesus is with another person, showing the close connection he has with all of us. The almond shape signifies the connection of two circles, revealing the two natures of the Lord: divine and human.
He said that the colors used in the logo also have significance. The red in the halo, the hands and the feet are the blood of Jesus. The white means brightness.
“It’s so bright we need sunglasses!” Father Klusman exclaimed, drawing chuckles from the group. Gold signifies baptism, he said, when we become pure like God. The concentric circles reveal the movement of Christ, who cares for everyone. He pulls people right out of sin and death.
“Jesus is our best medicine. He came and cleansed us!” Father Klusman exclaimed. The two people gaze with only three eyes, showing the union of Jesus with the person, and that they are connected and understand each other.
Frania Franch, a member of Transfiguration Church and the Southeast representative for the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, asked Father Klusman, “Is the man in the picture just any man?”
Father Klusman answered yes, that the man in the Year of Mercy logo represents all of us.
Late in the morning, Father Klusman became even more animated upon realizing that the group would soon be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Before Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory entered with the monstrance, the priest encouraged those present to recognize the True Presence.
He signed, “We can talk directly to him, and see the face of Jesus. This is not the time to chat or think of other things. Let’s thank him for coming. He wants to talk to you!” Archbishop Gregory thanked Father Klusman for coming all the way from Milwaukee and expressed profound appreciation for his presentation for the ASL track.
Aspects of life important to deaf community
Expressing some of the values of deaf culture, Father Klusman reminded the audience of the importance of hands. He said that hands allow us to serve, to drive to a church or hospital, to drive others, to carve wood—or perform various other careers—to write, to help others. For the deaf, hands are the very means of communication. Father Klusman reminded us of St. Teresa of Avila’s words, “Christ has no hands but yours.”
Light is also important to the deaf. Flashing lights, for doorbells or alarm clocks, get the attention of the deaf. In a deaf house, the most popular room is the kitchen, because it is the brightest. For the deaf, he said, light equals security.
During the afternoon, Father Klusman also gave a brief history of deaf culture. He explained that prior to 1880, sign language was allowed in schools for the deaf. This was the “golden age” for the deaf. But the Congress of Milan in 1880 changed that drastically. Suddenly sign language was removed from the schools. The deaf were forced to lip-read and learn to speak. Deaf students were shamed. Their hands would be hit with rulers if they were caught signing. They learned to put their hands behind their backs to show their shame. The deaf community is still recovering from this time period.
In 1950, William Stokoe, a hearing man, visited Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, D.C. He saw American Sign Language and realized that it had its own grammar and syntax. He recruited deaf people to write about their language, thus increasing awareness of American Sign Language. He is known as the “Father of ASL.”
In March 1988, students at Gallaudet University wanted a deaf president for the school. Two people were candidates for the role, a hearing woman who knew no sign language, and a deaf man. The woman was hired. At this, the students took their complaints to a march on Capitol Hill. The result, a victory for the deaf community, was that the woman resigned and the deaf man was made president.
Another advancement for the deaf was the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, requiring that the rights of those with disabilities be protected.
Father Klusman noted that slowly the negatives are being changed to positives in the culture. Hearing people are recognizing the worth of the deaf, and the deaf are finding hope and independence.
“Hope continues,” Father Klusman signed. “Jesus is here to help us with mercy!”
A signed discussion ensued concerning the recent deaf winner of the television show, “Dancing With the Stars,” Nyle DiMarco. DiMarco danced beautifully, even though he couldn’t hear the music. Father Klusman said that this was an opportunity to educate the hearing world.
He signed, “DiMarco carried the burden of the whole deaf community. His partner encouraged him to educate people. It was a beautiful relationship, a combination of the hearing and the deaf world.”
One of Atlanta’s seminarians, Rev. Mr. Carlos Cifuentes, who will be ordained a priest June 25, was introduced to the crowd during the afternoon session. He is from Bogotá, Colombia, and already knew Father Klusman. The young deacon learned ASL on his own and hopes to use it in his ministry as a priest.
Eyes and hands
In a beautiful explanation of Mark 7:31-37, Father Klusman explained how Jesus took aside the deaf man and communicated using “JSL” (Jesus Sign Language) with him. Jesus didn’t speak to the man. Instead, he communicated with signs by putting his fingers in the man’s ears, and spitting and touching his tongue.
“How can deaf eyes and hands become eyes of mercy and hands of mercy?” asked Father Klusman. “Through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.”
He gave numerous examples of how to live them.
“Don’t waste food, drink, or water. Visit the sick, and pray for them or send them a card,” he signed. “We don’t literally bury the dead, but we can support someone who has experienced a death in the family.”
Offering forgiveness is especially important for mercy.
“The first to apologize is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest,” he stated. “Forgiveness is letting go of the need to change the past.”
As these words sunk in, some in the group were moved to tears. With these and numerous other beautiful examples, Father Klusman constantly encouraged that all become receivers and messengers of mercy. Mercy is bridge building.
As the ASL track came to a close, the participants made their way to the closing Mass with hearts full of the profound impact of the priest’s insightful presentation.
Kathryn R. Byrne is a master catechist and has interpreted for the deaf at Masses and other functions for more than 20 years.