Diocesan Deaf Ministry Captures the Joy of Christmas

Deacon Tom Cuskey | Editor

The lights, candles and familiar hymns of Christmas that fill our churches on the holy day traditionally bring us a great sense of joy as we celebrate the birth of the Savior. It’s a feast for the senses, a feast for all. There is one special group of ministers within our diocese that works tirelessly to make sure that “all” are indeed served.

“The purpose of Deaf ministry is to make sure that everyone has equal access to the Word of God, to make sure everyone who comes to our churches is welcomed.” These words describe the mission that Michele Murphy oversees in her leadership role with Deaf Ministry Apostolate.

There are fourteen interpreters who lend their talents and skills to various needs throughout the diocese and beyond when necessary. Most are centered close to urban areas, but Michele points out that many people don’t realize that the interpreters often travel long distances to assist when needed.

“They will drive an hour and a half just to interpret a Mass and then drive an hour and a half home.” Travel is a big part of the service provided. “If we don’t travel, they may not have anyone at all to interpret.”

In addition to travel, time is also invested.

“We don’t think of this as an 8 to 4:30 job. We work nights, weekends as needed, sometimes with less than 24 hours’ notice.” That can be especially true when an interpreter is needed at a funeral Mass or graveside service.

When planning to interpret a scheduled event, such as a Christmas Mass, a lot of preparatory work and planning goes into the presentation. One thing that most people do not realize is that working as an interpreter often requires a specialized knowledge of the context language to be used, as in a religious or liturgical setting, for example.

“It’s very hard to find a religious interpreter…they tend to sign from the heart. They have a strong connection with God and they tend to bring out the beauty of each word in their facial expressions and body language. They bring their heart and soul into the community and they show Deaf people exactly what’s happening. When you are a religious interpreter, you have to learn all of the signs that are part of that field.”

Michele adds that “The interpreter’s job is to be the bridge to God. It is to connect the Deaf parishioner to the Holy Spirit. Interpreters normally sit between or as close to the lector and altar to allow the Deaf parishioner to be included in the Mass, not separated.”

All of those interpreting Masses and liturgies for the diocese are American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters who have integrated religious language skills into their knowledge base, especially the Christmas Mass.

This is a year-round ministry and Michele points out that “all Masses are beautiful but Christmas Masses have that special music and that beautiful language. It’s just a beautiful time.” Interpreters puts much time and energy into conveying that beauty and magic to the congregation. Michele has great appreciation for the interpreters.

“A lot of people think they just show up and interpret…quite the contrary. I am blessed to have this fantastic team and I appreciate all they do for the Deaf community. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to serve such a beautiful community of people.  Deaf ministry would not be the same without my wonderful team of interpreters. “

Michele adds that the ministry wants visitors from out of the area who may be attending a church wedding or funeral to know that these services are available should they need them. This also applies to the Christmas holiday season, when families welcome guests who accompany them to liturgies while they are here, some of whom may need this service.

This July, Michele will celebrate her tenth anniversary of working part-time for the diocese in this ministerial capacity, but she is involved full-time in her career as an interpreter. She also works to spread the Gospel by making sure people know what is available to them year-round.

“We do have options for people who are at home for health reasons and can’t get out…to participate in church even if they can’t come to church.”

For example, St Mary’s-St Peter’s Church in Rome, NY has a weekly livestreamed Mass that is ASL interpreted and is available on the parish YouTube channel (editor’s note: search St Peter’s Church, Rome NY on YouTube to subscribe). St Lucy’s Church in Syracuse has a weekly interpreted Mass, Sundays at 10AM, available via Zoom (the link is on the parish website at saintlucys.org/events).

Michele also stresses that the Deaf ministry is not just about church attendance.

“If we have a Deaf Catholic person that goes into a nursing home or goes into rehab, their priest will visit them for Communion. We want them to know that deaf ministry also will not ignore them. We are here for everything.”

Looking ahead, Michele reminds all that each year Bishop Lucia says a Palm Sunday Mass for the Deaf. “To have the Bishop come and celebrate a Mass for the Deaf community is just an amazing experience…they are very lucky to have that happen, it’s very special.” The Palm Sunday Mass usually takes place at Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse on Saturday evening.

“Deaf ministry isn’t just for Deaf people,” explains Michele. “We help people with cochlear implants, people with hearing aids. I help older people who don’t know sign language, who may lose communication with their family and start feeling isolated. There are things we can do to help with that as well. We help families find the assistance that they need. It’s just ministering to these people.”

To contact Michele, visit syrdio.org and search for “deaf ministry.”

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