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December 6, 2009

Deaf Catholics find willing audience at Vatican conference Eleven from archdiocese also in attendance

By Michelle Martin


For Father Joseph Mulcrone, the point of attending a three-day Vatican conference on “The Deaf Person in the Life of the Church” wasn’t so much to hear the talks, although they were worthwhile, or for the 400 registered participants — about a quarter of whom were deaf or hard-ofhearing — to get to see the pope.

For Mulcrone, the director of the archdiocese’s Office of the Deaf, “the point was for Pope Benedict to see us.”

Mulcrone traveled to Rome with 10 people from Chicago, half of whom are deaf or hard of hearing and half of whom minister to deaf people. They participated in the 24th-annual international conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, which this year was organized around the participation of deaf people in the life of the church.

The World Health Organization estimates that there are more than 233 million deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the world. If they were all in one country, it would be the fourth most populous, Mulcrone said. But because deafness is an “invisible” disability, those who live with it often do not have their needs met.

After the conference, organizers published a series of recommendations for ministry to deaf people, including that dioceses have at least one priest who is able to provide the sacraments, especially confession, to deaf Catholics.

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, which has had some kind of ministry to deaf people since 1884, many such suggestions are reality.

Many of the people at the conference, especially those from the developing world, work with few or no resources provided by their dioceses for ministry to deaf people, Mulcrone said. And 80 percent of the deaf or hard-of-hearing people in the world live in conditions of poverty or near poverty, having no access to the kinds of technology that would help them communicate with hearing people or even adequate levels of education.

Given that reality, and a tendency in Europe to treat deafness as a medical issue that needs to be fixed, Mulcrone admitted that he harbored fears that the conference would be patronizing toward deaf Catholics. He was pleased to find it was not.

“The deaf people were acknowledged, their lives were acknowledged and their faith was acknowledged,” he said.

When Pope Benedict spoke to the group at a private audience Nov. 20, he reminded conference participants that those who have difficulty hearing share the responsibility of all believers to spread the Gospel.