Hearing by Seeing: Deaf Ministry helps local Catholics growth in faith

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Jerry Circelli / Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

Deaf Ministry members, from left, LeRoy Terrio, Coordinator Connie Martin, Chaplain Fr. Ken Robinson, and choir director and religious education teacher Ann Rodenberg.

Deaf Ministry members, from left, LeRoy Terrio, Coordinator Connie Martin, Chaplain Fr. Ken Robinson, and choir director and religious education teacher Ann Rodenberg.

Born and raised as a Roman Catholic, 41-year-old Tania Rodriguez said she didn’t really develop a deep understanding of her faith until about three years ago. That’s when she started attending a Deaf Community Mass in the Diocese of Fort Worth.

At that Mass, held the first Sunday of each month at St. Rita Church in Fort Worth, about 75 members of the deaf community gather for services at which they can fully participate and connect with God. The Mass is celebrated with spoken words and in American Sign Language by Father Ken Robinson, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Muenster. He is assisted by Connie Martin, coordinator of Deaf Ministry and Special Needs Services for the Diocese of Fort Worth.

“It’s so important to have the Deaf Community Mass,” Rodriguez said, as Martin helped sign and articulate her answers. Rodriguez is profoundly deaf, but reads lips and uses oral speech herself.

“I’ve been going to church all my life. I had no interpreters growing up,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t understand my Catholic faith as well as I do now.” Through sign language interpretation during the Mass and involvement with other deaf Catholics, Rodriguez said she comes away with a better understanding of the readings, homily, and the entire Mass.

“I can follow along with what’s happening better and be with everyone else at the same time,” Rodriguez said, comparing her experience at a Deaf Community Mass to that of a Mass for the hearing. Even at Masses with interpreters for the deaf, a lag often exists between the moment readings, homilies, and prayers are spoken and the sign language is relayed. At the Deaf Community Mass, sign language is the primary communication. It is either used simultaneously with spoken words or communicated first and then interpreted for the hearing members of the congregation.

Deaf community members said they enjoy that sense of spontaneity and harmony at the monthly Deaf Community Mass.

Rodriguez has served as treasurer for the Deaf Ministry and is involved as a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion. When not attending the monthly Deaf Community Mass at St. Rita, she attends Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Denton.

“I have been connected to God all my life,” she said. “But now I feel closer. I’m closer to God and connected with our faith community.”

LeRoy Terrio has also experienced a closer relationship with God, a greater sense of community, and a deeper understanding of his faith since attending Deaf Community Masses.

Profoundly deaf, Terrio communicated by American Sign Language through Martin.

Terrio said his strengthened journey of faith started in 1998, when he moved from Connecticut to North Texas and became involved with the Diocese of Fort Worth Deaf Ministry. In Connecticut, Terrio said, he attended Masses, but was not actively engaged with the church community.

Catholics take an active part in all aspects of the monthly Deaf Community Mass, including responsorials.

Catholics take an active part in all aspects of the monthly Deaf Community Mass, including responsorials.

Since becoming involved with the Diocese of Fort Worth Deaf Ministry program, he has become an active participant in his faith community. He is a member of the Deaf Ministry Advisory Board, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, lector, altar server, and greeter. He also assists in many others ways, including collections, coordinating participation in the presentation of gifts during Mass, and helping find parishioners to participate in the Chalice Program for Religious Vocations, to name a few. He is also involved at his home parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Grapevine. In addition, Terrio stays busy with Knights of Columbus Council 9884 in Lewisville.

“My connection and communication with God has totally improved,” Terrio said. “The more I pray, the more I feel relief from the many challenges in life.”

Terrio said it also gives him comfort to help others in the local deaf community and said it is gratifying to serve at the Deaf Community Mass. “It gives me great satisfaction to help others and build community. I believe that is what God wants me to do,” he said.

The active Deaf Ministry member added, “We are getting more and more people to come to Mass. More people are getting involved and participating in the Mass. I can see that.”

Terrio said in addition to participating in a Mass that they can clearly understand, members of the deaf community join in the fellowship that follows.

Like Terrio, both Fr. Robinson and Martin count themselves fortunate to be a part the Deaf Ministry and to serve the Church with this devout group of Catholics.

Fr. Robinson has been celebrating Masses in American Sign Language for area Catholics since 1996. He prepared by studying locally and at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. The school is a premier higher education institution for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It also provides education for hearing students pursuing careers involved with deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

WEB-Deaf-Ministry-Invite.jpgThe priest is respected by members of the local Deaf Community for his dedication, understanding of the needs of the deaf, and ability to celebrate Mass in a way all can understand. With assistance from Martin and other members of the Deaf Ministry, Fr. Robinson is able to administer all sacraments, including Reconciliation, in American Sign Language.

Martin coordinates sacramental preparation classes for the deaf, along with many other duties in her role as coordinator of deaf ministry. In addition to the monthly Deaf Community Mass, interpreted Masses are offered weekly at eight parishes in the Diocese of Fort Worth. Retreats and other faith-building activities are also offered.

Both Martin and Fr. Robinson said the goal of the Deaf Ministry program is not only to help the deaf and hard-of-hearing to worship and receive religious education, but to assist them so they may minister to others. This includes participation in all aspects of parish and diocesan life.

“In our diocese, we are truly blessed that the bishops have been supportive of a Deaf Ministry program,” said Fr. Robinson. “And the Knights of Columbus throughout the diocese have been major supporters,” he added, commenting on the money raised annually by the Knights in the diocese for the Texas State Council’s charities program, 70 percent of which comes back to the diocese to fund the deaf ministry and seminarian support.

As a result, he said, the diocese has enabled a dedicated and talented group of Catholics to continue the work that Jesus asked of his disciples when he appeared to them after his resurrection.

The reference was to Mark 16:15 — Go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all mankind.

“He didn’t say, ‘Leave out some of the people,’ ” Fr. Robinson said.

Reflecting on the fact that the Diocese of Fort Worth Deaf Ministry will be celebrating its 40th anniversary later this year, Fr. Robinson said the diocese has a long history of living true to that gospel directive.

“We always need to remember that everyone in our community has something to offer,” Fr. Robinson said.

Born and raised as a Roman Catholic, 41-year-old Tania Rodriguez said she didn’t really develop a deep understanding of her faith until about three years ago. That’s when she started attending a Deaf Community Mass in the Diocese of Fort Worth.

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