Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades hopes the Day of Reflection for the Deaf the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend will offer Saturday is the beginning of what becomes an active deaf Catholic community in the diocese.
“Eventually, I would like to see Masses where the celebrant is signing,” Rhoades said.
Working toward that goal, Rhoades has asked two of the diocese's current seminarians to learn American Sign Language so they can celebrate Masses and provide sacraments to deaf Catholics in sign language.
He also hopes the Day of Reflection will draw out deaf Catholics and let them know the church wants to serve them.
“We know there are deaf Catholics who have not been well served because they speak a language we are not speaking,” said Mary Glowaski, the secretariat of the diocese's office of Evangelization and Special Ministries.
In the last two years, however, the diocese has become more intentional in reaching out to people who are deaf or have other disabilities, Glowaski said. The goal is to welcome them to the church and to encourage their “full and meaningful participation” in parish life, including in Catholic schools.
For the deaf community, that has included offering a sign language interpreter at Mass once a month at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne and twice a month at a parish in South Bend, Glowaski said.
But the diocese doesn't know how many deaf Catholics live within its boundaries, Rhoades said. Officials do know they need to do more to reach and minister to them.
Rhoades' interest in serving the deaf community dates to his early days as a seminarian at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, Pa. While there, one of his assignments was to teach religion class one day a week to children at Archbishop Ryan Academy for the Deaf in Philadelphia, he said.
He learned sign language for the assignment, but he didn't use it much in the years following and has lost most of his signing skills, he said.
Later, however, after becoming bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., in December 2004, Rhoades helped create a deaf Catholic community in the Harrisburg area, he said. He currently also serves as episcopal moderator for the National Catholic Office for the Deaf and is that office's liaison with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Rhoades, who became bishop of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese in January 2010, started deaf ministry efforts in Harrisburg much the way the local diocese is reaching out Saturday — by inviting in the Rev. Mike Depcik from the Archdiocese of Detroit, one of only about 10 deaf Catholic priests in the world.
At Saturday's Day of Reflection, Depcik will lead a spiritual retreat for deaf adults, celebrate Mass and offer the sacrament of Reconciliation, or confession, Glowaski said. All communication will take place in sign language.
Rhoades, who plans to attend the luncheon portion of the event, and Glowaski hope the day will help build relationships with Catholics in the deaf community. The next step will be for those people to advise the diocese on how it can best minister to deaf Catholics, Glowaski said.
“We have to find out what are the needs?” Rhoades said.
And as the diocese starts addressing those issues, he hopes deaf Catholics will begin sharing their spiritual and other gifts with hearing people throughout the diocese.