Bishop celebrates with deaf community
Mass marks 50 years of special ministry
Something special takes place at the Mass for the Deaf at St. Justin in Pittsburgh's Mount Washington neighborhood. There is an unmistakable joy on the faces of the hearing-impaired as they express their love of God.
"They are witnesses of the Lord for all of us," said Loretta Uhlmann, director of the Department for Persons With Disabilities.
Hearing-impaired people watch intently as the liturgy is signed to them and they sign their responses with vigor. They also interact with a choir that signs selected songs.
While the experience may initially be somewhat awkward for those who have never experienced it before, one quickly adapts to the subtle changes.
One also feels the enthusiasm of the hearing people who are part of the congregation. Many of them also sign their responses as a sign of unity with the hearing-impaired people.
"There's very much an embrace of one another as brothers and sisters of faith," Uhlmann said.
The diocese celebrated the 50th anniversary of the community with a June 12 liturgy at the parish. Bishop David Zubik was the main celebrant.
"This is a special community in the Church of Pittsburgh," the bishop said.
He pointed out that no matter how one communicates, we are all empowered by the Spirit to speak the language of Jesus.
Each one of us has different gifts and talents, Bishop Zubik noted, and none must be left out in doing the work of Jesus.
Father Walter Rydzon, pastor of St. Justin, serves as chaplain to the deaf community. He spoke of their strong sense of community and deep devotion to the Eucharist.
"We don't lock up our church until the last person leaves, which is sometimes 40 or 45 minutes," he said.
The 11 a.m. Mass typically includes an average of 50 people who are hearing-impaired, with some of them coming from Youngstown, Ohio, and Johnstown.
"The deaf are no different from the hearing people," Father Rydzon quipped. "On Christmas it goes up to 100, or 120."
Father Rydzon has served as pastor of St. Justin for 17 years. He said he has been heartened by the way in which the entire St. Justin community has embraced the hearing-impaired people.
By often signing their responses, he noted, the hearing people give their witness to the hearing-impaired. He cited the example of the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
At the 12th station, the people state for whom they are offering the stations. Many of the hearing people will sign their intention.
Several members of the community are blind and deaf. They follow the Mass through tactile interpreting.
"There's witness," Father Rydzon said. "Think about it. They wake up every morning not seeing, not hearing, and on Sunday they want to come to the Eucharist. They want to come give thanks to God."
He recalled asking one of them if they ever had a bad day. The man responded that he did not and that he only wanted to experience what God had planned for him.
Father Rydzon said he is "eternally grateful" for the opportunity to serve St. Justin and the deaf community because he quickly realized how special it is.
He spoke of the conversation he had when then-Father Zubik, who was serving as clergy personnel director, called him about the St. Justin position.
"I told him that this is like the RCIA, this is the rite of inquiry, not the right of acceptance," Father Rydzon recalled. "But by the time we finished I had the job."
Uhlmann noted that outreach to the deaf community is an "ongoing process" and that the Catholic Deaf Council is very active.
"This means very much," she said of the anniversary liturgy. "They are an important part of the church. They may communicate in a different way, but they each have the heart of Jesus."
She noted that hearing-impaired people are active as choir members, ushers and in other liturgical roles, adding, "It is a gift for all of us to witness as a Church of Pittsburgh and a Church Alive."
Religious education for children with hearing loss is offered at St. Justin and St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry township, Uhlmann said.
Interpreted Masses are offered weekly at St. Kilian and St. Peter in Butler. A number of other parishes offer interpreted Masses once a month. In addition, more than a dozen churches have assisted-listening devices.
A retreat for hearing-impaired people is set to begin Sept. 2, led by Father Thomas Coughlin, one of the first deaf men to be ordained a priest in the United States.
More information is available by calling St. Justin at 412-381-9878 (voice) or 412-381-9825 (TTY), or the Department for Persons with Disabilities at 412-456-3119 (voice) or 412-456-3122 (TTY).