By Larry Urish     6/1/2020

On more than one occasion, Pope Francis has greeted his audience by raising one hand, placing his two middle fingers in his palm and extending his thumb, index finger and pinky. This simple wordless gesture means, “I love you” in American Sign Language (ASL), the predominant manner in which the deaf communicate. 

By signing, “I love you,” the Pope is conveying a fundamental message of Catholicism to deaf Catholics near and far. It’s a message of inclusion, and it’s really meant for everyone on our shared planet.  

Inclusion is a core element behind every ministry in the Diocese of Orange, and the Catholic Deaf Community Ministry is no exception. Providing a variety of services for deaf adults and children, ministry staffers make special efforts to involve everyone.  

For example, “While our community workshops and retreats are specifically designed for the deaf, family members and other loved ones who wish to attend are supported by voice interpreters,” says Ministry Director Nancy Lopez. “Captioning is also provided. Everyone should always feel welcome.” 

Along with Sunday Liturgies signed in ASL, the Catholic Deaf Community furnishes counseling services, home and institutional visitations, citizenship classes and more. During normal times, the ministry provides a special 11 a.m. Sunday Mass for the deaf community at Mater Dei High School. 

But these are not normal times.  

“Because of social distancing, we’re now working more closely, at a broader level, with the National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities, producing videos and other content that are put up on their website and beyond,” Lopez says. A board member of the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, Lopez emphasizes that while group events are cancelled, “We have an opportunity to furnish greater access beyond our Diocese. This includes digital catechesis, daily blogs, reflections, spiritual growth – anything that can enhance the wellbeing of others is so important during these times.” 

Lopez has interpreted, in both English and Spanish, live-streamed Sunday Mass at Christ Cathedral, at 9:45 and 11 a.m., respectively. (For a list of the Diocese’s live-streamed Masses, visit evangelizeoc.com and select the “Mass at Home” link.) 

The new weekly video series, which teaches Catholic terminology in American Sign Language, is the brainchild of Marissa Cornejo-Leahy, director of the Diocese’s Mission Office. 

“The idea came from the quarantine,” Cornejo-Leahy says. “Nancy’s office and mine are very close [in Christ Cathedral’s Pastoral Center], so we interact a lot. What inspired me was seeing the Diocese’s Facebook page, with images of Mass being live-streamed.” 

“We thought that by creating a Catholic ASL video every week, viewers can get more excited about the live-streamed Masses,” Cornejo-Leahy says. “It’s interactive and sheds light on the Catholic deaf community while engaging everyone.” 

Thus far, the four- to six-minute videos, which include both Lopez and Corenejo-Leahy, teach ASL for “Alleluia,” “Kyrie,” “Lamb of God,” “Hail Mary” (parts 1 and 2) and the “Our Father” prayer. More will be added each week. The videos are posted across all social media platforms, including the Diocese’s Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook and Instagram accounts. “Mass doesn’t feel the same, since we can’t gather together,” Corenejo-Leahy says. “So the videos allow people to engage in a different way.”  

“It’s something interesting to learn during this quarantine period,” Lopez says. “A viewer may say, ‘Gee, I learned to participate in Mass in a way I’d never thought of.’”  

Both Lopez and Cornejo-Leahy hope that the videos spur some viewers to take up ASL in greater depth. “One of my biggest challenges is not having enough interpreters to help us convey the theology, faith and Biblical traditions,” Lopez says. “There’s always a need for interpreters, particularly those who know the Catholic theology and terminology. Interpreters embody facial expressions and body language. The deaf can’t hear a sermon, but they can see it in a completely different way.” 

La Habra resident Peter Aguilar has attended the Catholic Deaf Ministry’s Mater Dei services and has served there as a lector, responder and Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. These days, he watches the interpreted Mass live-streamed from Christ Cathedral. “Having an interpreter for Catholic Mass service has helped me grow my faith stronger with God by having access to my language,” Aguilar shared in an email. “And when I do ministry, it helps me to understand the Bible and help our deaf community to keep their faith strong.”   

The Diocese has been supportive of the deaf Catholic community since 1972. “We are one of the rare standalone Catholic deaf ministries,” Lopez says. “Catholic services for the deaf are usually a subsection of another [group], such as disability ministries. 

“Our mission really focuses on the whole person, not just their Catholic faith,” she adds. “We never turn anyone down, regardless of their denomination. For example, some deaf immigrants never had a formal education or exposure to language. We provide their first stepping stone toward communicating with others, which is so critical. If you can’t read or write, how will you survive?” 

At the end of the day, it’s always about inclusion and love. 

“We’re all in the body of Christ united,” Lopez says.