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Retreat, Mass in Sign Language Reach Out to Deaf Catholics
Jen Reed
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Saturday, September 5, 2009
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HARRISBURG, Pa. (CNS)—Father Michael Depcik, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, knows full well the challenges of catechizing and tending to the spiritual needs of deaf Catholics.

He is one of only six "culturally deaf" priests in the United States. Culturally deaf people are those who are born deaf or who become deaf early in life. They rely primarily on sign language to communicate.

In late June Father Depcik visited the Diocese of Harrisburg to lead a prayer day for deaf Catholics and celebrate Mass in American Sign Language at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg.

"Deaf people grow up not really understanding their faith, not really understanding their relationship with God," Father Depcik said in an interview with The Catholic Witness, Harrisburg's diocesan newspaper. He was assisted by sign-language interpreter Ginny Duncan, director of the diocesan disabilities ministries office.

"For example, most deaf kids are born to hearing parents who can't sign," he said. "How do we expect them to learn their faith when it's inaccessible to them in many cases?"

Father Depcik, who ministers to deaf Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago and is a member of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf and the International Catholic Deaf Association, reaches out to deaf people through retreats such as the one held at the Cardinal Keeler Center June 27.

The day featured two presentations, the sacrament of reconciliation and Mass—all offered in American Sign Language.

"They probably get more today than they do in their whole lives because they've missed so much," Father Depcik said of those in attendance. He noted his great admiration for those deaf Catholics who continue to attend Mass and practice the faith, even though they may not fully understand it.

The retreat focused on saints and their example for Catholics today.

"I want people to leave here knowing that God loves us, and God wants us to be with him," Father Depcik said. "God gives us the church and different means to have a relationship with him."

On June 28, the priest celebrated Mass at St. Patrick Cathedral for both the deaf and hearing communities. The parish is one of several in the diocese that offers sign-language interpretation of Masses. Its pastor, Father Thomas Rozman, has been studying American Sign Language at Gallaudet University in Washington, which offers education and career development for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Father Rozman and Duncan offered voice interpretation during the Mass.

Father Depcik focused his homily on everyday miracles and on the call to care for one another.

"We can make a difference through prayer. If a person is sick, bring them soup. Visit them. That makes a difference. That's a miracle," he said. "If we don't pray for people and don't take care of each other, the world will become so different."

Father Depcik, 39, said that upon his ordination in 2000, he was concerned not about the challenges of being a deaf priest, but about the attitudinal barriers that people often place on those who are deaf.

"There is still a feeling that deaf people can't do things, that doors are closed. But really, deaf people can do anything," he said.

"I'm interested in seeing more commitment from the church and the services for the deaf," he said. "Priests learning to sign and serve deaf Catholics is so wonderful."

He said he is impressed with the Harrisburg Diocese and Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who understood the need for Father Rozman to learn sign language.

Father Rozman said the program offers "complete immersion not just into a language, but into a culture." He completed some courses July 1 at Gallaudet and was to return to the university July 19.

"Evangelization is very important, and we need to get the message through to everyone," he said. "The deaf Catholic community is a significant part of the church. We need to help them realize that they belong to the church and are a part of the family."

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