Making the faith more accessible to those unable to hear the Mass

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PROVIDENCE — Being hearing-impaired can be alienating for Catholics.

According to various studies, less than four percent of the Catholic deaf community in the United States attend church on a weekly basis, mainly because of the lack of American Sign Language-interpreted Masses and events.

“Imagine you going to church and not being able to hear or understand what anybody is saying… What would you get out of that?” said Irma I. Rodriguez, the director of the Diocese of Providence’s Apostolate for People with Disabilities.

With the pastoral needs of deaf Catholics in mind, Rodriguez’s office has helped to organize a weekly ASL-interpreted Mass at St. Patrick Church in Providence. The first ASL-interpreted Mass was held on Aug. 19, and will be a weekly feature on Sundays moving forward.

“I think this is inspirational. I’m very happy,” said Gina Donofrio, who communicated through an interpreter, said she intends to keep attending Sunday Mass at St. Patrick’s.

“Oftentimes, deaf people will not go to Mass, knowing there is not an interpreter, so now that the access has been provided, it has lifted my spirit,” Donofrio said.

Until recently, Rodriguez said the only regularly-offered ASL-interpreted Sunday Mass in Rhode Island was at St. Mary of the Bay Parish in Warren. Rodriguez said a few other parishes throughout the diocese have had ASL-interpreted Masses once a month.

“We hope that since this is going to be every week, that it will slowly create a community for them,” said Rodriguez, who also hopes to have an ASL-interpreter in the parish’s faith formation classes so children who are deaf or hearing-impaired can receive their sacraments.

“We’re working toward that goal now,” said Rodriguez, who credited Father James Ruggieri, the pastor of St. Patrick Church, with agreeing to host an ASL-interpreted Mass for Providence-area Catholics.

“When Father Ruggieri heard of the need, he immediately opened the doors of his parish to welcome this wonderful addition to his parish Eucharist celebration,” Rodriguez said.

Father Ruggieri said he realized the need for a Mass for the deaf community after speaking with Rodriguez.

“The Church is an inclusive community and therefore we need to consider people who also have physical disabilities or challenges, and figure out how we can make the Church even more welcoming in situations like that,” Father Ruggieri said following the Mass on Aug. 19.

The Catholic bishops in the United States have long realized the need to provide pastoral care to Catholics who are deaf, hearing-impaired or have other physical disabilities. In 1978, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a document urging parishes to have sign language interpreters at Masses.

In the 1990s, the bishops released a longer document that said deaf Catholics also “should have the opportunity to confess to a priest able to communicate with them in sign language” or to use an interpreter in confession.

“All persons with disabilities have gifts to contribute to the whole Church,” the bishops wrote, adding: “When persons with disabilities are embraced and welcomed, and invited to participate fully in all aspects of parish community life, the Body of Christ is more complete.”

Rodriguez said the diocesan Apostolate for People with Disabilities has been searching for ways “to facilitate the full participation of the deaf parishioners in our diocese.” Those efforts have included partnering with local organizations such as the Rhode Island School for the Deaf and getting interpreters for the Masses.

“There have been many requests from deaf Catholics to be able to assist at Mass in a more meaningful way,” Rodriguez said.

Robert Remigio, an ASL interpreter, signed the entire Mass, and the music also, at St. Patrick Church on Aug. 19. It was his first time interpreting the liturgy through sign language, a task he said was difficult at times.

“With the grace of the community, I was able to do it,” Remigio said. “They were helping me throughout the Mass with certain signs that I wasn’t familiar with. But with God’s blessing, I’ll continue to do this.”

Father Ruggieri said he believed the first ASL-interpreted Mass at St. Patrick Church was a success.

“I think this is fabulous. This is perfect for our community,” Father Ruggieri said. “I’m glad we can provide something for the people.”

In collaboration with Father Shawn Carey, the director of the Deaf Apostolate in the Archdiocese of Boston who also serves as president of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, Rodriguez said her office’s website will soon feature resources for parishes, families and interpreters in American Sign Language.

The schedule of ASL-interpreted Masses at St. Patrick Church will also be posted as it becomes available on the parish website http://saintpatrickchurch.net and at https://dioceseofprovidence.org/ministry-for-the-deaf-and-hard-of-hearing.

For more information, contact Irma Rodríguez at irodriguez@dioceseofprovidence.org or call the Office of the Apostolate for Disabilities at 401-278-4578.