Deaf US priest Fr Michael Depcik, OSFS, has urged the New Zealand bishops to train at least one priest or seminarian in New Zealand Sign Language, as he stressed the importance of having a signing priest to tend to the sacramental needs of the Deaf Catholic community.
Fr Depcik celebrated Mass in sign language at St Dominic’s church in Blockhouse Bay, Auckland, on August 18. He is one of only 10 Deaf Catholic priests in the world. He works at the Archdiocese of Detroit and ministers to the Deaf community.
“One of my main frustrations . . . with the Church is the lack of understanding or awareness of Deaf Catholics’ unique needs in the Church. I often point out that the Church tends to be deaf to the Deaf,” he told NZ Catholic in an emailed reply to questions sent to him.
In an article he wrote for the American National Catholic Partnership on Disability, he cited four challenges that the Deaf community faced.
First, he said, is that they do not speak the language of the Church leaders and second is that their disability is invisible. Because of these, he wrote, they are inadvertently ignored and often overlooked.
The third challenge is the lack of signing priests. This is also true in the New Zealand context.
“It is important that Deaf Catholics have a signing priest for their sacramental needs. Many Deaf Catholics do not go to confession for years because they don’t have a priest who knows their sign language,” he told NZ Catholic.
“I always encourage bishops to have at least one priest/seminarian to learn sign language and serve Deaf Catholics. Interpreted Mass is not the same as going to Mass where the priest celebrates in sign language,” he added.
The fourth challenge for the Deaf community in the US is cutbacks that often happen on budgets for Deaf ministry.
“I am very pleased that the Diocese of Auckland has Rachel Marr and Eric Matthews on the staff to minister [to] the Deaf,” he said.
Fr Depcik does not consider himself disabled. He was born to a Deaf family of seven and grew up in Chicago. He studied at St Rita School for the Deaf, where he excelled academically and was very active in extracurricular activities.
“I think I have similar challenges as any other priests regardless if they are hearing or Deaf.
“However, I feel so blessed with many of God’s blessings in my life. If I was not Deaf, my life would be totally different,” he said.
Fr Depcik said he enjoyed his visit to New Zealand and was sad to be leaving.
“I hope to return one day!”
In advice to Deaf Catholics he said: “Always try to go to Mass on [a] regular basis in order to meet Jesus in the Eucharist, regardless if there is no signing priest. Try to pray at least 10-15 minutes every day and you will become more aware of God’s presence in your life.”
Ms Marr, pastoral worker to the Catholic Deaf, said it was wonderful to experience a Mass led by Deaf for the Deaf community.
“It was a wonderful experience with our own Sign language and culture. There was no music at the Mass,” she said.
She said around 70 to 80 people attended the Mass.
“They felt it was really wonderful and that the Mass belonged to them as part of their language and culture,” Ms Marr said.
“Normally, we watch the interpreter most of the time during the Mass. It would be very rare to watch the priest,” she said.
At this Mass, they watched the priest signing the whole time “which was really beautiful and felt natural for all of us”.
She said the Deaf community would like to have a Mass for Deaf on every Sunday.
Ms Marr said Fr Depcik’s homily was really good.
“We learned a lot from him,” she said.
This article was originally published in Issue 573 (September 8 – 21, 2019) of NZ Catholic newspaper.
Republished with permission from NZ Catholic and Rowena Orejana.