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Our First Signed Mass

Posted by on July 31, 2011

Fr. Walter Rydzon signs the mass as Bishop Zubik celebrates at St. Justin Church.

Since our whole family has been enjoying learning ASL signs, and we’re Catholic, we thought attending a bilingual ASL/English mass would be an interesting and edifying experience. It took us a while, but we finally got around to doing it last week. It was an interesting and generally positive experience.

[Many of my observations are conspicuously Catholic, and would likely fit better on my faith blog, but I didn’t want to break my write-up into two posts. Deal. ;P]

The deaf communities masses are celebrated at St. Justin, a church in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Getting there was interesting, thanks to the steep hills, narrow roads (some cobblestone), and tight turns. Parking was mildly challenging as well. If masses there had greater attendance, I can’t imagine where everyone would park. I don’t think there were more than about 30 people in the congregation, most of whom seemed to come from a nearby old folks’ home, so on-street parking was adequate.

The low attendance was the first thing I noticed about mass at St. Justin. Indeed, the congregation wasn’t only sparse, but it was predominantly elderly. Sadly, I’m somewhat accustomed to seeing greying congregations, but I was surprised by the number of elderly deaf parishioners. I expected that a mass drawing people from Youngstown, Ohio and Johnstown would have demographics more similar to the region’s general population. Granted, Allegheny and surrounding counties give Florida a run for its money in terms of senior citizen numbers. However, I really thought there’d be more young people. Where do all the city’s deaf children, adolescents, and young adults go to mass if not St. Justin?

It’s always sad to see a parish in decline, but seeing such a special community and ministry in peril seemed particularly tragic. There was more that caught my notice, though, so I’ll move on.

"I love you" is a pretty succinct summary of the meaning of the cross.

At the beginning of mass, I noticed a few interesting things in quick succession. The first was that nobody rose for the opening hymn. In fact, we eventually discovered that nobody stood during the mass at all, except to receive the Eucharist. At first we thought this due to a laid-back attitude with respect to liturgy, but we soon realized that it was probably to facilitate easier viewing of the signers in and around the sanctuary by the deaf congregants.

I next noticed that the altar servers were dressed like they just left a soccer game. I suppose they might be special needs young adults, and as such should be cut some slack. Still, it was a jarring sight.

[On a side note, what’s with priests wearing their stoles on the outside without a chasuble. I thought that was verbotten.]

Once the altar servers were no longer front and center, I noticed the sign choir. Three elderly women signed the opening hymn (and other hymns throughout the mass), as a hearing woman seated in front of them prompted them so that their signs were properly synchronized with the sung words. It was neat to watch. The women were clearly enjoying what they were doing and “praying twice” (in the Augustinian sense). 🙂

It wasn’t long before we were befuddled again, as we were when nobody stood at the start of mass. Neither I nor my wife can recall reciting either the Gloria or the creed. It’s possible we did one or the other and simply don’t remember, but it’s highly unlikely we did both. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the rubrics of the mass, the Gloria is said or sung, not that it is optional. The same goes for the creed. Both prayers are rather long, and might be tiring to sign, so the community may have a special indult permitting their omission. I certainly hope so. Until I know otherwise, I’ll just have to give benefit of the doubt.

Enough nitpicking, though. I’m sure you’d rather know what the experience of a signed mass was like. 🙂

Fr. Walt signed everything he said during the mass, including the homily. It was interesting and educational to watch. The other liturgical signers were interesting as well, both on their own and in comparison to each other. Just as everyone has a unique speaking voice with its own particular combination of volume, tone, vibrato, speed, etc., every signer is unique. One signer, an interpreter (who signed the responsorial psalm, for instance), stood at a podium to the right of the sanctuary (from the congregation’s POV). She signed with an emotionless face and wide, sweeping gestures. The first signer for the Liturgy of the Word (who was perched at a podium elevated with respect to the lectern) was deaf. She didn’t show emotion on her face or make eye contact with the congregation as she read and signed the old testament and epistle, and her gestures were narrow and kept close to her chest. The interpreter for the gospel was very different. She put her whole body into her signs, with a richly expressive face, varied emphases in gestures, and a very large signing space. She was a pleasure to watch. 🙂 [She looked very familiar, and my wife and I suspect she’s interpreted for televised city council meetings we’ve seen.]

Once we got used to St. Justin’s peculiarities, it was an enjoyable, enriching, and uplifting experience worshiping with the deaf community. 🙂 The boys seemed to enjoy the new experiences they had there. Alex seemed particularly enthralled, and was often staring around the room with wide eyes and blank expression. Knowing what a smart cookie he is, I’m sure he was just absorbing all the information presented to him by his environment like a sponge. 🙂

When the mass was over, I got a “bonus” experience. As we packed up to leave (diaper bag, etc.), we were approached by several of the elderly deaf women (and possibly a couple men; I can’t recall). I got to put my meager signing and sign reading skills to work as they spoke to us. They complemented us for how well behaved our children were (which, as always, I accredited to God’s grace, rather than our parenting). They told us how cute they all were and asked about their ages. It wasn’t a long or complicated conversation, and most tried to speak, so I could read their lips and sometimes hear what they were trying to say/sign. It was still cool to communicate with sign in a real life scenario, though. Signing Time videos can only get you so far. 😉

I thought the Vatican ordered churches to remove resurrexifixes from their sanctuaries.

Later that day I chatted with some folks on Twitter about our experiences at St. Justin. I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that the parish is probably going to be closed in the near future. The building, a tacky example of late-50s Catholic architecture, is nothing special to look at and of no historical value. The deaf community there, however, is a precious thing. I’d hate to see it become a historical footnote. Unfortunately, though, as I already mentioned, the congregation is rather elderly. I don’t know where the bulk of the deaf community of Pittsburgh and its surrounding region goes to mass, but it wasn’t at St. Justin last week. I’d love to know where all the deaf young people are. Do a lot of them have cochlear implants? Do they read lips at spoken masses? Do they attend interpreted spoken masses? Do they go to mass at all?

Stunning high altar. Appalling cloth on the freestanding altar.

In addition to the rumored demise of St. Justin parish, I was told that the parish would be subsumed by St. Mary of the Mount, another parish on Mt. Washington. That, to me, seems to be fabulously good thing, actually. That church is a gorgeous historic landmark (pics, more pics, another pic). I really hope the deaf community’s signed mass is continued if St. Justin is absorbed by St. Mary of the Mount. The beautiful expression of sincere and heartfelt faith, the unique community, and the grandeur of the architecture would be a treasure for the city of Pittsburgh and something I’d want to experience frequently. 🙂


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