CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
To follow the Shepherd on his path of redemption, the sheep must first be able to hear his voice.
But what of those sheep born without the ability to hear? What of the sheep who live in a country where religious education in their native language is often inaccessible?
Equally precious to their Shepherd, these sheep are as much in need of his voice as all others, so that “they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)
The Catholic Stewardship Appeal, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s annual fundraising campaign, benefits ministries and programs in four areas: serving families, strengthening parishes, supporting schools and forming priests and parish leaders.
Within these areas of ministry, the CSA is able to work small miracles in bringing the word of God, the fullness of the Catholic tradition and the sacraments of the Church to minority communities, including Catholics who are Spanish-speaking and those who are deaf. Because of how crucial its funding is to the success of these apostolates, supporting the CSA is truly bringing the voice of the Shepherd to the entirety of his flock.
“For the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, I think it’s a great thing that they really want to continue helping out the other groups, the minority groups,” said Juana Avila-Palacios, director of Latino ministry at the Catholic Community of Waukesha, which benefits from the CSA. “Because sometimes even though they are the ones that have less, they are the ones who bring the most, somehow.”
Fr. Christopher Klusman considers himself lucky that God has given him the ability to minister to the deaf. As one of just 15 deaf priests in the world, he knows intimately the unique challenges faced by deaf Catholics in accessing the fullness of all the Church has to offer. As the part-time director of the Deaf Apostolate for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, it is his job to make sure the non-hearing sheep have all the sacramental, theological, emotional and spiritual support as the hearing sheep.
But that’s easier said than done. While hearing Catholics have their pick of literally hundreds of Mass times and Confession opportunities, it’s a completely different story for the deaf. They drive great distances for a Mass that is either presided over by Fr. Klusman or interpreted by a trained interpreter. Confession and other sacraments are even more complicated. As Fr. Klusman explains, the experience for a deaf person of being anointed by a priest who is not trained in American Sign Language would be akin to an English-speaking person being anointed in Japanese.
Since the deaf community is spread out all over the archdiocese, getting the resources to the people who need them is a matter of great expense and effort. Sign language interpreters for Mass and for religious classes or conferences are specially trained to understand and convey Catholic theological concepts, and they have to earn a living wage — usually about $70 per hour, working for a two-hour minimum. For these expenses and many others, said Fr. Klusman, “We are truly dependent on the financial support of the Catholic Stewardship Appeal.”
Avila-Palacios has the same mission as Fr. Klusman. Serving the growing population of Spanish-speaking Catholic families who attend St. John Neumann, St. Joseph, St. Mary and St. William parishes, her job is to “bring families together” — to put the services of the Church at the disposal of Spanish-speaking parents for the purposes of empowering them as the primary educators of their children.
“In order for them to pass values to their kids, they need to be able to do that in their own language,” she said.
By offering multigenerational religious education that includes parents physically and culturally, the archdiocese creates an opportunity for the parents to engage with their children on religion — a topic that is being pushed more and more to the back burner in modern families of all nationalities.
“We have an environment where, most of the day, the kids are in an English world, and they are learning about secular things and they don’t have an opportunity to be together with the family even in a dinner-time (scenario) to be able to discuss those very deep situations that they face regarding their faith, in their own language,” she said.
For Hispanic Ministry formation programs like Avila-Palacios’, CSA funding “always makes a huge difference,” she said.
“For example, there is a huge need for having equipment for presentations — even just a computer to teach the class,” she said. Money is also used to offer scholarships for families who cannot afford tuition.
For both Spanish-speaking and Deaf Catholic communities, accessing these resources is not a question of convenience — it truly is a matter of evangelization, of salvation of souls.
Current statistics cite that 99 percent of the deaf community is unaffiliated and do not attend any church, said Fr. Klusman, who added that a lack of access to resources is one critical factor in this figure. Another is the small percentage of deaf children whose parents can sign adequately enough to explain and pass on the fundamentals of the faith.
“We all have a responsibility for the salvation of souls, especially of the deaf,” he said. “Many deaf, even those who went to church for many years, still do not know all the bare basics of their faith. I had a deaf woman who didn’t know why we did the Sign of the Cross. She, in her 30s, finally was able to learn why the Sign of the Cross was done. It is because no one could explain it to her in her language, and she had no one who could do that for her.”
For Avila-Palacios, it is equally crucial to help Spanish-speaking parents impart their Catholic faith to a generation of bilingual children who are exposed to an unprecedented influence of secularism and anti-religious sentiment. “One of the main things that keeps families together is their faith, and the majority of (the Latino families) are Catholic,” she said. “In the world that we’re facing right now, it’s very important, especially for the Latino families, to be able to engage with their kids in the values of the Catholic faith.”