By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 3, 2011
It was during an International Catholic Deaf Association conference in Baltimore in 1971 that members of the deaf community decided it was time to have a national voice. The conference served as a springboard for the deaf community to express its spiritual needs and establish the National Catholic Office for the Deaf, which this year marks 40 years of ministry.
The office’s 2011 Pastoral Week Conference, held from Jan. 14 to 18 in Atlanta, followed the theme “Renewing the Vision,” which honored the accomplishments of these four decades of ministry even as the group also looked at the challenges they now face moving forward. A special focus was given to ministering to deaf teens, a group in the deaf community that is often left untouched.
Deb Garner, who coordinates services to deaf Catholics for the Atlanta Archdiocese, said the deaf community faces its own unique challenges in today’s world.
“Deaf Catholics experience a form of isolation not seen by other cultural groups,” said Garner, a member of the NCOD’s board of directors and Southeast regional president.
“Even though parents are the primary teachers of the Catholic faith, many deaf Catholics have received little faith formation from their family due to the inability of many hearing parents to communicate with their deaf children. For this reason parents turn to the Church in greater need when they have a deaf child,” she said.
Featuring nationally recognized presenters and opportunities for networking, the Pastoral Week Conference gave attendees access to many resources for their own ministries. Speakers included Amy Cohen Efron, who has worked in deaf children’s ministry for 15 years, and Father Joseph Mulcrone, director of the Catholic Office of the Deaf for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Also among the week’s presenters was Bob Ayres, president of DeafYouth Ministries, an organization that focuses specifically on ministry to deaf and hard of hearing teenagers and their families. Ayres presented some of the difficulties in working with the deaf but also provided some encouraging words to those who are involved in this important ministry.
Things have changed in the deaf world, Ayres signed to the crowd, adding that the deaf community is more scattered and spread out than ever before. The majority of young deaf students are attending mainstream schools while only a small portion, about 20 percent according to Ayres, are attending schools specifically designed for the deaf.
“Young people will not come looking for us. We must look for them,” he said.
“It is often difficult to keep teenagers, especially deaf teens, interested in their faith formation,” added Garner. “The workshops for this conference focused on teens and the use of technology to keep their interest.”
Guests at the conference included Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Luis Zarama, who celebrated Mass for the attendees, and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind. Garner said it was crucial to have these two church leaders present at the conference.
“It is very important that the bishops are aware of the needs of this marginalized community, especially when economic challenges are causing the closing of many programs,” said Garner.
According to its website, the NCOD currently serves approximately 5.7 million deaf and hard of hearing Catholics through its pastoral ministry and special advocacy to bishops, pastors and families who have deaf children. By offering training to pastoral workers, assistance to parents with deaf children, and shared opportunities for religious education, retreat and renewal programs, the NCOD continues to be a strong presence in the deaf community.
“NCOD was established to provide support for pastoral workers who work with the deaf, children and adults. Teaching materials have required adaptation for use with deaf students in preparation for the sacraments. Over the years, NCOD has been involved in developing many sacramental prep materials. Another focus of NCOD is advocating for support of the ministry throughout the country,” said Garner.
Garner also said that the Catholic Church is losing many of its deaf members to other denominations since these faith communities are willing to provide the necessary services. The conference was designed to be an encouragement to those already involved in the ministry to seek new ways to reach deaf youth and inspire them to become involved in their own faith formation.
“Especially during this time of ‘Catholics Come Home’ we need to dig deep to support the programs that are available within the Catholic Church and bring our deaf Catholics home,” she said.
“Most of the attendees were very pleased with the programming presented at this year’s Pastoral Week,” Garner said. “The members of NCOD attend Pastoral Week to network and support each other. They also attend for their own personal spiritual renewal. And, of course, to rekindle friendships made at past Pastoral Week conferences.”