A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Accommodating the Deaf
ROME, 1 JAN. 2008 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Will there ever be a day when the deaf will be allowed to enter convents, monasteries, for the religious life? When all Catholic churches will have American Sign Language and closed-captioning available for the Mass? I believe even the deaf are equal before God and should be equal before the Church. — M.D., Belleville, Ontario
A: There are two questions involved here. One regards the best means of fostering the liturgical participation of the deaf, and indeed of all people suffering from some physical limitation, and the second regards the entrance of the deaf into religious life.
While it is always possible to do more, the Church has at heart the plight of those unable to hear, and tries to help them as far as its possibilities allow.
Examples of this concern is the publication of official texts for signing the Mass issued by some bishops' conferences as well as building guidelines such as "Built of Living Stones," issued by the U.S. episcopal conference.
Regarding accessibility to churches, this document states:
"§ 211 § Every person should be welcomed into the worshiping assembly with respect and care. It was the prophet Isaiah who announced the Lord's message: 'For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.' The bishops of the United States have stated that 'it is essential that all forms of the liturgy be completely accessible to persons with disabilities, since these forms are the essence of the spiritual tie that binds the Christian community together.' Further direction is given by Pope John Paul II, who has called the Church to the full integration of persons with disabilities into family, community, and Church, and to overcome 'the tendency to isolate, segregate and marginalize [those with disabilities].' When buildings present barriers to the full and active participation of all, the Body of Christ is harmed.
"§ 212 § Special attention should be given to individuals with visual or hearing impairments, to those who have difficulty walking or who are in wheelchairs, and to the elderly with frailties. In addition to ramps, elevators, braille signs, and special sound systems that can be accessed by those who need assistance, staircases should have at least one railing. If the sanctuary is elevated by steps, an unobtrusively placed ramp with a hand rail should be provided to make it possible for everyone to have access to the sanctuary.
"§ 213 § The planning process should include consultation with persons with various disabilities and the use of an accessibility inventory to ensure a careful review of potential or existing architectural barriers. All new construction and renovation work must fully integrate the demands of the liturgy with current laws, codes, and ordinances for persons with disabilities.
"§ 214 § Older places of worship can be especially challenging because of the obstacles they present to persons with disabilities. In the renovation of older buildings, special provisions must be made to harmonize the requirements for accessibility with the architectural integrity of the building and with the norms for the proper celebration of liturgy.
Adaptations to existing buildings can be expensive, but failure to make the community's places of worship accessible will exact a far more costly human and ecclesial toll. The goal is always to make the entire church building accessible to all of God's People."
Thus, the will to address the particular difficulties of those with disabilities is very present in the Church. However, a parish is less a public service provider and more like a family. A family will go out of its way to provide for the needs of its members, but only so far as its resources allow.
I would say that if in many cases the requirements of those with special needs has not been addressed it is not from lack of interest but due to limited resources.
The other question, regarding possible vocations, is more delicate.
It is not generally considered discrimination when someone aspiring to a particular walk of life is required to meet certain necessary minimum physical conditions. Thus, pilots and surgeons need good vision and people suffering from diabetes are sometimes excluded from demanding professions such as the police force.
A substantial part of a priest's mission is taken up listening, whether hearing confessions, guiding souls, or in more mundane tasks such as parish committee meetings. Very often people receive spiritual comfort just from the fact that the priest has truly listened to their difficulties and even before any counsel is proffered.
Certainly, a priest who suffers from loss of hearing does not lose his vocation but must bear the burden of having to limit some areas of his ministry.
It is thus not unreasonable for a diocesan seminary, a religious order actively engaged in pastoral work, or an active congregation of female religious to require that candidates have the requisite physical conditions for engaging in the particular mission.
That said, all priests are not necessarily pastors, nor all religious engaged in active apostolate. And so it is certainly possible for persons suffering from deafness to be consecrated to God if a congregation with a suitable mission is willing to accept them.
This would not be a novelty in the Church. I remember some years ago reading of a priest who founded a contemplative congregation made up entirely of blind nuns. This congregation existed for several years, and might still exist today even though I am unaware of its name and location.
Similar institutes might exist for other disabilities.
In the end it matters little what particular mission we might have carried out in Christ's Church but that each of us reaches sanctity by taking up our cross and following in his footsteps.
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