“Communicating the Faith”: An Interview with ASL Catholic Media
The St. Josemaria Institute recently launched a partnership with ASL Catholic Media to share an interpretation of select meditations on the St. Josemaria Institute Podcast in American Sign Language. In this interview, we speak with the team behind ASL Catholic Media about their important role as interpreters and the challenges Deaf persons face in the Church today.
As St. Josemaria explains: “We must remember that we are only instruments. The teaching, the message which we have to communicate, has in its own right an infinite effectiveness which comes not from us, but from Christ. It is God himself who is bent on bringing about salvation, on redeeming the world” (Christ is Passing By, no. 159).
Q: Can you share with us a little bit about yourself: your background, family, work and life of faith?
Fr. Christopher: I was born Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and am one of the few Deaf priests in the world. I am the youngest of four, in which my three other siblings are hearing. I currently serve as Director of Deaf Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I’ve been very blessed to have role models in my parents who are devoted Catholics. Growing up, I have always had a deep desire in learning more about God in the Catholic faith. But, growing up as a Deaf person allowed me to experience challenges of access and inclusivity, as well as some joys.
Julia: I was blessed to grow up in a big Catholic family in Texas where our faith was a part of daily life. As I began attending University, I came across challenges to my faith and came to understand on a deeper level the importance of knowing one’s faith, the support of a community, and a daily prayer life. I became concerned when I saw how many people do not know or love God and was motivated to share the beauty of who He is. Currently, I work as a sign language interpreter in religious, medical, and a variety of other settings. Prayer is an indispensable part of my life, especially the Mass and the rosary. Mostly, though, I just talk to God from the heart about my day to day life and let Him work patiently in me.
Christopher: I was born in Southern California to a faithful Catholic family. In many ways, they’ve served as prime witnesses of the faith and shared it with me richly. Today, I am blessed to know God and minister to Him through ASL Catholic Media. I am also an American Sign Language instructor.
Q: When was ASL Catholic Media launched? What is the mission and how does it serve the Catholic community? What is your role in the organization?
Christopher: ASL Catholic Media launched its first video on Ash Wednesday (2019). At the time, I was its only member (and founder). Since then, the ministry has grown to include two other content creators and a chaplain, Fr. Christopher.
Our central goal is to make the Catholic faith accessible to the Deaf and hard-of-hearing through American Sign Language. The ministry is also supportive of non-signing members through the use of open captioning. At present, we provide prayers, commentaries, seasonal reflections, Sunday Gospel readings, instruction videos, and more. All of these are in American Sign Language.
Q: Who or what inspired you to become an American Sign Language interpreter? How does serving as an interpreter that provides content about the Catholic faith inspire your own life of faith?
Julia: Initially, it was the language that drew me in. Then it was the community and the honor of being able to provide a communication link between people who use different language modalities. I have worked with so many people who inspired me, including my first Catholic mentor interpreter during my internship from 2014-2015, who showed me how to serve God wherever He calls us with humility, patience, and zeal. Throughout, I have been inspired by Deaf community members who have helped me to grow in confidence in a new language and inspired me to live out the faith on a deeper level by their teaching and the example of their daily lives. Interpreting has taught me to understand my faith on a deeper level, as I have to understand the words to accurately convey them. It has led me to dig deeper into theology, especially the Catechism, as well as to meditate on the Scriptures I interpret as part of the liturgy.
Q: What are some of the challenges Deaf persons face in the Church today?
Fr. Christopher: The number of Deaf that attend any church is at an all time low of 1%. The reasons are many: lack of access of ordained ministers who can sign in ASL, lack of qualified and available interpreters, lack of trained Deaf who can serve as instructors for religious education, lack of resources in ASL as well as subtitled or captioned, costs due to budget cuts, lack of language fluency by hearing parents in which more than 95% of parents don’t know how to sign beyond simple signs and basic phrases (so how would a parent be able to teach their Deaf child about the tenets of the faith?), and that the Deaf community is so spread out.
Q: How can the lay faithful engage with and support the community, and how can we overcome different approaches to communication?
Fr. Christopher: A starting point is to ensure that there are at least one church in areas within the arch/diocese that provide access for the Deaf community by having ordained ministers who can sign well and/or having qualified sign language interpreters. But, we can’t think that having a sign language interpreter is sufficient. The Deaf community needs to be welcomed, given ways to participate in the life of the Church (serve on committees, groups, liturgical roles such as lectors, etc). It is always nice to allow the Deaf persons (those qualified to do so) to offer a basic course in ASL so parishioners can start learning how to communicate with other Deaf people. More and more courses (and resources) are available online than before. Deaf people just want to belong to the parish and to feel a part of a worshipping community than just a group of people to please a parish’s goal for social justice.
Q: For the many Deaf persons who struggle with the challenges of participating in the life of the Church, do you have recommendations on how they can approach their diocese and/or parishes for help in accessing the sacraments, such as confession, Eucharist, and Anointing of the Sick?
Fr. Christopher: It would help for the arch/bishop to recognize the importance of the Deaf in their own arch/diocese and that at least two priests (or even at least two seminarians eventually becoming priests) receive instruction on ASL in which they could administer various sacraments. How would you feel if you were administered a sacrament and not know what language the priest is saying? This is often the case and experience of a Deaf person. They can contact NCOD (National Catholic Office for the Deaf) on how an arch/diocese can begin to open up and begin the necessary first steps in welcoming the Deaf community. One has to see the Deaf community as another cultural group, such as the Spanish, Native American, and other cultural communities.
Q: In addition to ASL Catholic Media, where else can Deaf Catholics find resources today for deepening their life of prayer and friendship with Jesus Christ?
Christopher: As Fr. Christopher alluded to, there is dire need for more Deaf-accessible, ASL resources in the Catholic Church. We do have a few signed resources, but these are scarce and/or in need of updates. For Deaf Catholics looking to deepen their understanding of the sacraments, they might find these three resources helpful:
When it comes to building a relationship with Jesus, one might try a community group on social media, like Deaf Catholic World on Facebook. Aside from this, one may look to captioned content, which varies in its accuracy and abundance. Simply put, we are in need of more, and looking forward to offering just that!
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us? Where can our readers find out more about ASL Catholic Media?
Christopher: If you are interested in learning more about ASL Catholic Media, you are welcome to check us out on YouTube and Facebook. We are in the process of creating a website for ourselves, so stay tuned!
Julia: Our faith is a great treasure. Pray that God will give you opportunities and the wisdom to share your faith with others in day to day life.