Friday, August 7, 2009

Who are the Cumans for us?

Today we celebrate the Feast of St Dominic Guzman, the founder of the Order of Preachers and, naturally, a commemoration enjoying the rank of a solemnity among the children of St Dominic. That having been said, I wish to convey my heartfelt greetings to all the members of the Dominican family, especially my professors and confreres at my alma mater, the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, in Berkeley, as well as to my onetime undergraduate institution, St Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, New York. Finally, I extend my warmest greetings to the friars of the Dominican Missionaries for the Deaf Apostolate headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.

Dominic was a soul on fire with evangelical zeal, a true missionary who burned with the desire to proclaim Jesus Christ to everyone he met. We all know the story of Dominic, while still a canon of Osma, at a layover during a diplomatic journey to Denmark with his bishop, stayed up all night conversing with an Albigensian and, at the break of dawn, ended up hearing his confession and received him back into the Church.

On the way to Denmark, Dominic and his bishop, Diego de Acebo, passed through Germany and saw the disaster and chaos left by the barbarian Cumans, a pagan culture still deprived of the Gospel. Rather than expressing outrage, Dominic was touched with pity, because he knew that the onslaughts of the Cumans had little to do with their race but everything to do with their ignorance of Christianity. For the rest of his life, Dominic expressed his deepest desire to preach Christ among the Cumans.

Some eight centuries later, a successor of St Dominic, the Very Reverend Vincent de Couesnongle OP, wrote his prophetic encyclical to the Order, Who are My Cumans? Master Vincent turns the drama between Dominic and the Cumans into an icon of the Dominican charism, in which, after everything has been said and done, we must shake off the status quo and go off among the people who have been deprived of Christ. He writes,

"To go to the Cumans" means not being satisfied with "saving the saved", but reaching out also, indeed especially, those who are not "saved", but who will make or unmake tomorrow's world.
Above all it does not mean criticising what is happening in our times, and then carrying out as well as possible the narrow way of life which we have laid down for ourselves, once and for all. What it does mean above all is to carry on the work of Saint Dominic, or in other words to allow him to be still present in the world as it exists.

The work in the parish is often simply "saving the saved"--most parishioners are already Catholics, have already received the Sacraments of Initiation, and are in the business of ensuring that flock remain steadfast in the Faith. However, parish life must be outward-looking; when +Allen Vigneron was still the Bishop of Oakland, he rightly lamented that most parish evangelization efforts seldom looked beyond the parish rosters to the souls who languish in ignorance of the Gospel.

The Albigensians whom Dominic and his friars preached to were heretics--which means they were Christians before but had succumbed to error. The Cumans, on the other hand, were not; they simply knew nothing about Christ and his Church. We know who our "Albigensians" are. But who are our "Cumans"--who are those people we know that have never been Christians?

For me, my Cuman is the Deaf person who has been ignored by parish priests.

I have had dozens of conversations about the necessity of the Deaf apostolate (as opposed to Deaf ministry). Here is a sampling of comments that make their rounds fairly often:

1. Deaf people have not approached the diocesan curia for the sacraments; therefore there is no need for outreach to the Deaf.

2. We don't have any Deaf parishes to begin with.

3. There are ministers who sign in neighbouring dioceses, so in case of necessity, we can always appeal for their help.

Contrast these remarks with the Church's supreme authority:

The Church, which has been sent by Christ to reveal and communicate the love of God to all men and to all people, is aware that for her a tremendous missionary work still remains to be done. There are two billion people--and their number is increasing day by day--who have never, or barely, heard the Gospel message; they constitute large and distinct groups united by enduring cultural ties, ancient religious traditions, and strong social relationships. Of these, some belong to one or other of the great religions, others have no knowledge of God, while other expressly deny the existence of God and sometimes even attack it (Ad gentes, n. 10, emphasis added).

Consequently, to conduct ordained ministry that falls short of evangelical zeal of harvesting souls for Christ is to disobey the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity. I have found it puzzling that many dioceses actively pursue ministries to specific cultures such as Vietnamese, Filipino, Hispanic, Chinese, and so forth, but shrug off the pastoral needs of Deaf people. "If the Church is to be in a position to offer all [people] the mystery of salvation and the life brought by God, then it must implant itself among all these groups in the same way that Christ by his Incarnation committed himself to the particular social and cultural circumstances of the [people] among who he lived." Contrast this with the practise of many diocesan curias who, on one hand, deprive able priests of a post in the Deaf community and, on the other hand, are content to station inept priests in Deaf parishes. In fact, one priest I know, who signs fluently and has ably worked in Deaf ministry with distinction has decided to pursue laicization because his Ordinary has refused to allow him to continue his ministry among the Deaf.

The Code of Canon Law, an entire title is set apart for "The Missionary Action of the Church" (cc. 781-792). "Since the whole Church is by its nature missionary, the work of evangelization must be held as a fundamental duty of the People of God..." (c. 781). Moreover, "As sponsors of the universal Church and of all the churches, individual bishops are to have special solicitude for missionary work, especially by initiating, fostering, and sustaining missionary endeavors in their own particular churches" (c. 782.2). For those dioceses who neglect the evangelization of Deaf persons, I ask: How does one justify such negligence in the face of the Church's supreme authority, and indeed, in the face of the Church's doctrine of mission which is rooted in the mystery of the Trinity (Ad gentes, ch. 1; cf. Christus Dominus, 22.3).

Among the "Cumans", obviously, are Deaf people--with their unique language, social norms, and culture. True, not every person is called to evangelize and serve every culture, but that by no means justifies any lack of pastoral solicitude for them. I may not be called to evangelize or catechize the Chinese peoples, but I am certainly obligated to ease the path of those missionaries who proclaim the Gospel among them. Likewise, not every cleric is called to evangelize and catechize the Deaf, but that does not excuse any sort of pastoral negligence or apathy.

The real question then, is this: do Deaf people have souls worth saving? Was not the Incarnation also for the eternal welfare of all peoples, including the marginalized such as those who cannot hear, cannot walk, cannot see, or have mental disorders? We know that Christ had a special love for the disabled: he healed a deaf man (Mk 7:31-37), cured diseases (e.g. Lk 5:12-16), restored paralytics (e.g. Mk 2:1-12), and gave sight to the blind (Mk 10:46-52). Christ, who is the exemplar for every Christian, expect us us to imitate his love for disabled people.

For me, "my Cuman" is Deaf person who does not know Jesus Christ. Who is your "Cuman"?

Saint Dominic Guzman, pray for us!

This post is dedicated to H. E. the Most Reverend +Kevin Rhoades S.T.L., J.C.L., D.D., Bishop of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and episcopal liaison for the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, in gratitude for his pastoral solicitude towards disabled persons in his diocese. Ad multos annos!