Signs at Liturgy

(From Pastoral Music, April-May, 1995. p. 68;

Entitled "Roundelay 2" in the publication)

I had seen the practice before. And, thank God, it's becoming more and more common, not only at some large public and secular meetings but also at some of our liturgies and other parish gatherings. Up front, near the side of the altar, there was a signer who was signing along with the presider at the liturgy. A small contingent of the hearing impaired were seated in the front row and each was repeating the message being signed.

My first response to what I was seeing was one of quiet joy and celebration. It was so good to see this body of our brothers and sisters, so long neglected, participating in the eucharistic assembly. And then it hit me, and what I suddenly perceived in a new way almost caused me to laugh out loud. Here was a part of the lay congregation joining fully in reciting the eucharistic prayer.

The presider and, I suppose, most of the assembly were oblivious to what was happening. Had the presider been asked to describe it, the answer probably would have been that the person was signing as a help to the deaf. And the speaker would have been innocently unaware of the implications of the answer: Signing is understood to be a "help" and an aid but not in its own right a language. We who can "speak" are such oral chauvinists (there's a new concept for you!) that we unconsciously reduce sign language to some inferior and second-class substitute for (are you ready for this?) real speech.

Of course, once you think about it, what was going on between the signer at the altar and the several pews of people who were responding in sign was real communication. It was communication as real and as valid as oral English, German, Spanish, or Latin. It was human beings repeating along with the oral speech of the presider all that he was saying: praising God, acknowledging our common human sinfulness, and celebrating the magnalia Dei just as surely as if we oral speakers were filling the air with reverberating sound waves. Oh, did I forget to mention also that they were narrating Jesus' deeds at the Last Supper?

Those who, as the professional world so quaintly puts it, "work in the field" are always helping us to clean up our language and our attitudes by referring to persons with impairments of one sort or another as "specially abled." And indeed people lacking one bodily capability or another often do possess a competence in the use of other bodily faculties that those of us who are "fully abled" can scarcely dream of. But it had never occurred to me that those with impaired hearing have "faculties" in another sense: They can pray our common eucharistic prayer together with the presider while the rest of us who are "fully abled" in one oral language or another must listen in silence. What a delicious irony that our so-called "fully abled" condition does not allow our joining in what must be a powerful participatory experience.

So blessings on you, my friends who supposedly can't "hear." I envy you your special faculty. Now, I realize that I am taking some liberty and perhaps putting you at some risk by revealing your secret. I just hope that some rubrical nitwit in a church office somewhere doesn't read this and decree either that your arms must be tied behind your backs or that a veil must drop down over your signer just before the institution narrative. Forgive me if I jeopardize your privilege. I just felt that all the "hearing" faithful would want to rejoice with you.

A final irony: the presider was a bishop. And the signer was one of those persons, according to recent Vatican decrees, with the impairment of not being able fully to set forth an image of Jesus.

And a post-final whisper (via sign, of course) to our friends with special faculties: Is there any chance you could "tell" us how you brought it off? We would like to "hear" it.