Monday, March 16, 2009

The Sacred Liturgy and Mystagogy in the Catholic Deaf Community

One of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church in our times is the restoration of the catechumenate (Sacrosanctum concilium, 64). Through three distinct steps and three distinct periods, the seeker comes to know Christ, to submit their lives to him, and ultimately to be incorporated into His Mystical Body (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 4-8).

The culmination of the liturgical year, of course, is the Paschal Vigil. At the Exsultet, the cantor reminds us of the role played by water in the economy of salvation:

This is the night when first You saved our [ancestors]:
You freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night when Christians everywhere,
washed clean from sin
and freed from all defilement
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.
The power of this holy night
dispels all evil, washes guilt away... (Paschal Vigil, Missale Romanum, 18).

During the Liturgy of the Word, the Church proclaims the gift of water and its relation to the mystery of baptism (Gen 1:1-2:2; Ps 104; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Rom 6:3-11, to name but a few).

Imagine, if you will, the candidates for baptism being attentive to the words of the Exsultet and the proclamation of the Scriptures; when the celebration reaches the Liturgy of Baptism, the presider recites an astonishingly beautiful prayer of consecration over the waters, one that again summarises the role of water in the economy of salvation (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 222). And, after the mighty reminders of water as bearers of sanctifying grace, the candidate submits to a baptism of a few drops of water on the forehead! Instead of being the culmination of the symbol of water throughout the Paschal Vigil, the rite of baptism is reduced to an anticlimatic moment. As Fr Dennis Smolarski SJ, professor at Santa Clara Univeristy's School of Pastoral Ministry explains,

It is often overlooked that the rubrics show a preference for baptism by immersion. The General Introduction of Christian Initiation states that immersion "is more suitable as a symbol of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ." Baptism by immersion has been in use for centuries by Eastern Catholics, by Orthodox Christians, as well as by various Protestant denominations. When someone enters the waters of teh font and becomes completely covered with water, the truth that baptism is an entry into the tomb with Christ as well as a bath for cleansing is conveyed quite dramatically to all present (Dennis Smolarski, Sacred Mysteries [New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1995], 39).

Yet most of us are content to do the least amount of work in the celebration of the sacraments. In the long run, our mystagogical catechesis becomes impoverished; tactile expressions of the faith, which finds a unique home in Deaf culture, is suppressed, and yet another opportunity to catechize the Deaf is tragically lost.

Liturgical minimalism has been the historic disease infecting the Roman Rite. The post-Tridentine Scholastics, in discovering necessary and sufficient conditions for each sacrament, unwittingly became accomplices in the reduction of the sacramental symbols to their absolutely minimal requirements. For baptism, at least water on the forehead and the canonical form became the standard. For Eucharist, at least a piece of unleavened bread and wine mixed with water and consumption of both species by the presider alone became the standard for Holy Communion. As a result, liturgy and catechesis gradually became estranged from each other; during the Tridentine period, handing on the faith was reduced to the propositional model of Revelation, with little if any "hindsight" of the sacraments and their catechetical weight. I am convinced that because the Eastern Church has resisted the tendency towards minimalism, they have been able to easily retain sacramental catechesis. (Cf. Maxwell Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation [Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2007], 189f.)

It would be helpful to recall a significant shift in St Thomas Aquinas' sacramental theology. Whereas earlier in his Sentences, Peter Lombard thought that the necessity of sacramental symbolism was due to the obscurity of human reason by sin and concupiscence, St Thomas argued that the symbolism carried an intentional pedagogical value. His famous sacramental dictum, "The sacraments effect what they signify" should remind us that the value of the sacramental signification should not be reduced to merely the effects. In other words, indeed there is the sanctifying grace communicated through the sacraments, but there is also the grace that enlightens our understanding of the Mystery of Christ highlighted by the sacramental celebration itself. As the supreme magisterium teaches:

The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God; because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called "sacraments of faith" (Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum concilium, 59).

But can we admit of an instructional value when the sacramental signs are minimzed and reduced to their absolute minimum? Of course not.

When I began ministry with the Deaf, a senior colleague, herself a religious sister, gave me the feedback more than once, and always with a derisive tone: "Words, words, words," as though what I said was completely missed by a Deaf audience whose culture was more narrative than literary. Though I was too young to appreciate it at the time, I now understand that she was perhaps more right than she realised!

Recall, for example, St Mark the Evangelist's penchant for details: Jesus "stretched out his hand and touched" the untouchable leper (1:41); his use of spittle and soil, then "groaning" before healing the deaf man (7:34); taking the blind man "by the hand" out of the village (8:23); taking "a little child and put it among [the disciples]; and taking it in his arms" (9:36). Each of these teachings by Jesus was prefaced by a symbol that was palpable and self-explanatory. These moments must have been so profound so as to remain vivid in the memory of St Peter, who according to tradition was the source of Mark's narrative.

Jesus' example of using symbols and gestures is the paradigm of sacramental celebration.

It is precisely for this reason that, in the celebration of the sacraments, the sacred ministers and pastoral workers who serve the Deaf be allowed to make gratuitious use of the symbols in the celebration of the sacred liturgy. It is difficult to understand Christ as the Living Bread when, contrary to the Church's laws, the Sacred Body is served under the appearance of paper-thin sheets of carbohydrates (cf. General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 321). The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is better symbolized by the pouring of the Sacred Chrism rather than tracing a dab of oil on the forehead. Most importantly, catechesis on being "buried with Christ" makes far more sense in the context of one's experience of baptism by submersion rather than infusion (cf. Rom 6:3-6). The gratuitious use of symbols--being tactile expressions of the faith--addresses Christ within the peculiarly Deaf milieu of visual communication.

The neophytes are, as the term "mystagogy" suggests, introduced into a fuller and more effective understanding of mysteries through the Gospel message they have learned and above all through their experience of the sacraments they have received. For they have truly been renewed in mind, tasted more deeply the sweetness of God's word, received the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and grown to know the goodness o the Lord. Out of this experience, which belongs to Christians and increases as it is lived, they derive a new perception of the faith, of the Church, and of the world (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, 245).

Dr Edward Peters notes that "[a]s a rule of thumb, 90% of Catholics receive 90% of their exposure to things Catholic at Mass on Sunday." When one factors in the small number of Deaf Catholics, most of whom attend Mass only during Christmas and Easter, the urgency of going "all out" with liturgical maximalism becomes even more imperative. It is surprising how the most frequent symbols at Mass become drowned in a sea of words and movements--numerous times Deaf Catholics have asked me about "that white round thing I ate"! How can we expect to catechize members of the Catholic Deaf community if their experience of the sacraments have been minimal?

Indeed, celebrating liturgies with symbols that are allowed to speak for themselves requires work. But given Dr Peter's rule of thumb (above), we cannot afford to do any less. I know for a fact that Holy Angels Church of the Deaf in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles holds weekly meetings with its entire pastoral staff in order to plan the next Sunday's liturgies--they often run up to three hours or "As long as it takes" as the pastor, Fr Thomas Schweitzer once told me. It is not sufficient to ride on the momentum of the pre-established Ordinary and Propers of Mass--any pastoral team needs to plan and implement the inculturation of the liturgy in the Deaf community. How many Catholic Deaf parishes can rival Holy Angels Church's liturgical and sacramental diligence, if at all?

Ecclesial life is essentially liturgical. Our Catholic identity does not rely upon memorization of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit or the eight Beatitudes; rather, our Catholic identity is rooted in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Our awareness of Catholic doctrine, then, arises from a double anamnesis: the anamnesis of the Paschal Mystery and the anamnesis of our own celebration of the sacraments. Can we honestly say that our experience of the Sacraments of Initiation or of other liturgical celebrations are truly palpable enough to become the stuff of catechesis? If not, then how will we proclaim the faith to the Deaf without using "words, words, words"?

Not "words," but beauty that breaks through sacramental symbols. Dostoyevsky was right when he said that "beauty will save the world," and beauty will indeed save Catholic Deaf ministry. Our liturgies should inspire Deaf people the same way that it inspired the envoys of Prince Vladimir when they entered the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople: "We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth, but we know that God dwells here among his people, for we cannot forget that beauty." Yet how many of us can describe our Deaf liturgies as beautiful?

What might be some specific suggestions? I can think of five to start with:

  1. The Paschal Vigil should really be the culmination of the liturgical year (General Norms for the Liturgical Year, 18). Thus diligent planning should prepare for the celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation: baptism by submersion, generous pouring of the Sacred Chrism for Confirmation, and liturgically correct Eucharistic Bread that resembles food. Not only that, but other symbols should be palpable enough to be self-explanatory: a vigorous Paschal fire, a beautiful, perhaps home-made, Paschal Candle that remains lit until the conclusion of Great Paschal Vespers (General Norms for the Liturgical Year 19).
  2. As "windows into heaven" and "theology in colour", icons corresponding to the mystery in Christ's life being celebrated should be displayed and venerated, especially during the Lenten/Paschal cycle. In particular, PowerPoint slides of various icons corresponding to each article in the Creed would help the participant in worship to identify the story or narrative being proclaimed.
  3. A "running commentary" on the sacramental celebration should be avoided, except by way of reminding the congregation to be "on the lookout" for certain symbols and gestures. Then each gesture and symbol ought to be made with the greatest deliberation and articulation so as to be easily identified in one's memory when the catechist (or mystagogue) recalls them in a session of teaching the faith.
  4. Liturgical environment, especially that of cathedrals, provides a rich source of mystagogy. The symbols associated with the episcopal office such as the cathedra and the presbyterium serves to proclaim priests as "co-workers with the bishop" (Presbyterorum ordinis, 2); the mitre, crozier, ring, pallium (if the bishop is a metropolitan), and pectoral cross, expresses the meaning of "local Church" and its relation to the "universal" Church (Ceremonial of Bishops, 1-17).
  5. It is indeed an impoverished mystagogy of the Scriptures when they are proclaimed from a sheet of paper as is often the case in Deaf parishes. St Benedict's Parish for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing in San Francisco, to cite one example, uses a beautiful leather binder with a Celtic cross on the cover for inserting loose-leaf lectionary readings. The liturgical law is specific when it discusses the dignity of the book from which the Scriptures are proclaimed: "In a special way, care must be taken that the liturgical books, particularly the Book of the Gospels and the Lectionary, which are intended for the proclamation of the word of God and hence enjoy special veneration, really serve in a liturgical action as signs and symbols of heavenly realities and hence are truly worthy, dignified, and beautiful" (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 349).

Again, this requires work, much work indeed. But we are not pastoral workers in order to retain the title "Pastoral Worker." We are pastoral workers in order to ensure the full inclusion of Deaf Catholics in the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. Moreover, our pastoral work presupposes and requires the work of liturgical planning because liturgy is not the "work of the rubrics" upon whose momentum we can ride, but "work of the people" as Christ's "other Self" worshipping the Father. It is precisely as liturgizing that we "do Church", and it is only as Church that we are Catholics.


Bedard, Walter M. The Symbolism of the Baptismal Font in Early Christian Thought. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1951.

Irwin, Kevin W. A Guide to the Eucharist and Hours: Easter. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Kavanagh, Aidan. The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Paprocki, Joe, and D. Todd Williamson. Bringing Catechesis and Liturgy Together. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2002.

Richter, Klemens. The Meaning of Sacramental Symbols: Answers to Today's Questions. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990.

Smolarski, Dennis C. Sacred Mysteries: Sacramental Principles and Liturgical Practice. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1995.

Wilde, James A., ed. Before and After Baptism: The Work of Teachers and Catechists. Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training Publications, 1988.

Yarnold, Edward. The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Pres, 1994.

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