Deaf Catholics meet and unite

IMG_2668By Fr Mark James OP

At the opening Mass of the Catholic Deaf Conference held in Cape Town from 12-15 December 2014, Archbishop Stephen Brislin welcomed all the participants from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, Mariannhill, Manzini, Pretoria and Lesotho. He encouraged each one to recognise their mission as baptised disciples that fits with the conference’s theme: ‘Building a Deaf-aware and Deaf-friendly Church together; celebrating our Catholic Faith in Sign Language’. However, our Catholic mission goes beyond the boundaries of the Church, because – as Catholics – we are called to witness to Christ throughout the whole world, including both the Deaf world and the hearing world.

During deliberations participants shared on the challenges facing Deaf Catholics in Southern Africa today. ‘In Cape Town our Catholic Deaf members have dropped over the years,’ explained Stephen Lombard, the PRO for Deaf Community Cape Town (DCCT) and facilitator of the Conference. ‘We still have about 120 people coming to Mass on the Third Sunday of every month. This conference is important to help develop ways in which we can promote the Catholic faith among Deaf people. We are losing out to many of the new Deaf Fellowship churches which are strong in the Western Cape’.

‘One of the biggest problems within our own Church,’ he said, ‘is that priests in hearing parishes need to become more Deaf-aware. Many priests don’t even know that they have Deaf people in their parishes. Most of the Deaf feel pastorally neglected. We need to develop an awareness programme for priests and hearing parishioners to make them more Deaf-aware and Deaf-friendly’.

Makeni Myanga and Christine Magongwa, two representatives of Deaf youth from the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, believe that ‘the biggest challenge facing Deaf Catholics is the lack of young people in our church communities. We need to develop dynamic Deaf youth groups which make the faith appealing and understandable to Deaf youth. It has to be done through the medium of Sign Language, the language of Deaf youth today. We need good signing choirs and a youth camp to stimulate the faith of our Deaf youth’.

This conference is partly a realisation of Zanele Mbothwe’s dreams. ‘As Deaf Catholics, we felt lost after the death of Fr John Turner CMM last year. In Mariannhill, we didn’t know what we were going to do,’ she said. ‘God has been good in sending us a new chaplain in Fr Lufeyo Mpaha CMM. Thankfully this conference too, helps us get to know other Deaf Catholics and it gives us courage. Now we can build up a better future for Deaf Catholics in KZN’.

‘Since the death of Fr John, many of the Catholics in Swaziland were being lured to join the Jehovah Witnesses’, says Sibusiso Zulu from Manzini. ‘We lost our interpreter at the Sunday Masses because another church could pay him a salary. We were in desperate trouble. Fr Mark James OP has been visiting us to help build up the community again’.

Father Charles Phoofolo OMI, a hearing priest from Lesotho, believes that ‘Deaf awareness is a crucial task in Lesotho, just as in South Africa. Many people in my country still think Deaf people can’t do anything important. Hearing people are very patronising and paternalistic towards Deaf people. Deaf people are not allowed to drive motor cars in Lesotho. There is much prejudice and discrimination to overcome’, he said. ‘I am encouraged by this conference to build support between Deaf Catholics in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland’.

A working committee of seven members was elected comprising: Eric Mahamba (Cape Town); Zanele Mbothwe (Durban/Mariannhill); Makeni Myanga (Johannesburg); Sibusiso Zulu (Manzini); a representative from Lesotho; Father Lufeyo Mpaha CMM; and Father Mark James OP. The committee will clarify and implement the recommendations of the conference over the next two years.

Among the recommendations passed were the organising of a Catholic Deaf Youth camp during 2015; promoting Deaf Awareness in our parishes and dioceses; provision of interpreters for hearing Masses to ensure the inclusion of Deaf people in liturgical celebrations; improving our signing choirs and Deaf liturgy; encouraging Deaf people to become extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist; and to investigate the possibility of programmes like Marriage Encounter and Alpha being made accessible to Deaf Catholics.

In closing, a word of appreciation was expressed to the Deaf Community Cape Town (DCCT) and especially Fr Mark Foster, the chaplain to the Deaf in Cape Town, for agreeing to host this ground-breaking event. A firm foundation has been laid for a Church that is Deaf aware and more inclusive of Deaf Catholics throughout Southern Africa.

Fr Mark James OP

28 December 2014