For most of her 67 years, Mary Lomastro could not fully understand the Roman Catholic Mass that she attended each Sunday.
Ms. Lomastro, of Coventry, R.I., is deaf. She attended weekly services at her home parish, but could not follow the Mass beyond what was printed in the missalette.
That all changed last summer, when the Diocese of Providence became one of the few in the country to have a deaf priest celebrate a Mass in American Sign Language, with a verbal interpreter.
The priest, the Rev. Joseph Bruce, says Mass at St. Ann’s Church in Providence and at other parishes throughout Rhode Island, where 60 percent of residents are Catholic, the highest percentage of any state.
"Attending Mass with a deaf priest who uses sign language is more inspiring than an interpreted Mass," Ms. Lomastro, who now volunteers as a lector at the deaf Mass, wrote in an e-mail message. "When Father Bruce signs, it is coming from his inner self."
Father Bruce is one of seven deaf priests ministering in the United States, said the Rev. Thomas Coughlin, head of the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate in Hayward, Calif. Four deaf seminarians are studying to be priests, the most ever at one time, according to the National Catholic Office for the Deaf.
I have been to some Masses in my diocese where they had a interpreter doing sign, though not one with the priest doing ASL. This article did make me wonder about the use of ASL in the Mass by the priest and I found a helpful article by Jimmy Akin for This Rock Magazine on the subject.
Q: Is it permissible to translate spontaneously into sign language what is being said at Masses for the deaf?
A: Yes. In 1965 the Concilium issued a reply which stated that it had considered whether it was fitting "1. That the readings should be communicated to the [deaf] people by means of signs; 2. that the deaf people should reply, in those parts pertaining to the congregation, by means of signs. It was [also] asked . . . (a) whether texts proffered by the celebrant could be at the same time spoken and signified with his hands; (b) whether in those texts that were said together by the celebrant and by the people, the people could follow the sign language of the celebrant, they themselves also using the sign language."
"With great willingness and kindness, the Holy Father has given his full approval to these suggestions and has said moreover that sign language could be used with and by deaf people throughout the liturgy, whenever it was judged to be pastorally desirable" (Documents on the Liturgy [DOL] 2119).
In 1966, the Holy See gave another reply: "Query: May sign language be used in the celebration of the liturgy for the deaf? Reply: Yes. For it is the only way for the deaf actually to take an active part in the liturgy" (DOL 296 note R1, Query 2).
Canonist Dr. Ed Peters on the subject notes that this permission was given just two days after the close of the council and offers some additional information on the subject in a reply to an article in Adoramus Bulletin.
Jimmy also answers the point I thought about while reading the NYT article in regards to the words of consecration.
One point that should be noted: Though permission has been given for the use of sign languages as liturgical languages, the Church has not established that sign language constitutes a valid method of administering the sacraments. Thus in its replies on using sign language, the Holy See has stated that the priest is to say the parts of the Mass particular to him (such as the words of consecration) both out loud and in sign.
There is also a Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate that preaches in sign language. Of course the old joke goes is that they must be very popular for confession. On this point though the late (and great) Fr. Hardon answers a question on how does someone who is mute or deaf go to confession?
A mute or deaf person can go to confession in various ways. If he knows sign language, he can choose a confessor among priests who understand sign language. Or again a mute or deaf person can write out his sins, and either personally or through someone else ask the priest to read his written sins. Then the priest, in writing, may give the penitent such spiritual assistance and assign the penance in accordance with the sins confessed. Or still again, penitents can ask someone whom they totally trust, and to whom they have confided their sins, to go to confession for them. Of course the priest must be first both informed and willing to cooperate. If the priest cooperates, the assistant to the penitent may confess for the penitent; but of course this assistant is absolutely bound by the seal of confession. Finally, if the above options are simply not available, the person may receive absolution from a priest, provided two conditions are fulfilled: the penitent must really want to confess his sins, and secondly he will take the next opportunity to confess his sins by way of sign language, writing or through an assistant.
I never realized that there could be a sacrament by proxy where someone could go to confession for somebody in these unique circumstances with permission of the priest. Though of course the precedence is Jesus dying for our sins.