Parish missions, retreats and opportunities for confession are among the offerings that fill church calendars during the Lenten season, providing the faithful with various ways to renew and deepen their faith.
But for Catholics who are deaf or hearing-impaired, trying to take part in these events can be a challenge.
“If they go to church and there’s no interpreter, they don’t understand what is happening,” said Father Raphael Munday, who coordinates disabilities services in Catholic Charities’ Office of Disabilities and Deaf Ministry. “Sometimes they feel left out.”
That concern prompted Father Munday to host a Lenten series for deaf adults at St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, where he resides. He is conducting the sessions in American Sign Language (ASL) with PowerPoint slides every Saturday during Lent, from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Light refreshments and fellowship follow.
Father Munday is also making himself available for the sacrament of reconciliation in ASL after each session, as well as on Reconciliation Monday, April 10, at the cathedral-basilica.
“I wanted to make Lent special for the deaf community and give them a chance to learn something, to deepen their faith as we prepare for Easter,” he said.
“This is a series to learn about the church and about the faith, but most importantly, to come together and get to know one another, to build the deaf community in the diocese.”
The initial session, March 4, focused on the meaning and purpose of Lent as well as its three pillars: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Future sessions will address aspects of the faith, the Eucharist and reconciliation with God and others.
Attendees came from the small, but active deaf community at St. James, where the 11 a.m. Sunday Mass is ASL-interpreted. In the coming weeks, the priest hopes to see members of the deaf communities at St. Mary Mother of Jesus, Bensonhurst, and St. Sebastian, Woodside, as well.
Learning about the presence and the needs of people with disabilities in the diocese has been one of Father Munday’s aims since being appointed to Catholic Charities by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio last year.
‘Make Everyone Feel Welcome’
“My ministry is really to make everyone feel welcome and included in the church,” he said. “Whether people have disabilities or they are deaf, that should not be something to keep them away from the church.”
He also wants to “bring awareness that our brothers and sisters who have disabilities belong to the church as much as we all do,” he said.
Father Munday first became interested in sign language after watching deaf children communicate with each other in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. While studying for the priesthood at Immaculate Conception Seminary in Huntington, L.I., he was allowed to pursue his studies in ASL at Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C.
Now he is using that knowledge to respond to the pastoral, sacramental and catechetical needs of those who are deaf or have disabilities in the diocese. Most recently, he had the opportunity to baptize a baby whose parents are deaf.
“To be able to communicate the faith and explain it to them in their own language, in sign language, I think it’s made some connection between them and the church, and that’s very important,” he said.
Finding services within the diocese has been life changing for Jacques Henri Bien-Aime, who became deaf 12 years ago. He has limited hearing with a cochlear implant, but has learned lip reading and some sign language.
“It was difficult to accept, but finally I did,” he said. “This is God’s will.”
When he heard about this Lenten series at St. James, he was excited because he says, he is continually seeking “enrichment in my faith, to grow deeper in Christian life.”
And even though he cannot hear so well with his ears anymore, he told a visitor, “I still have to keep listening to what God wants for my life.”
This spring, Father Munday is planning two Masses of inclusion and community resource fairs for people with disabilities and those who are deaf at St. Kevin, Flushing, on April 30, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Sunset Park, on June 4. To learn more about these upcoming events or this Lenten series for deaf adults, contact Father Raphael Munday at 718-722-6232 or email Raphael.Munday@ccbq.org.