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Ordination a reminder of dignity of hearing-impaired

SEOUL (SE): The ordination of a hearing-impaired Franciscan to the priesthood in Singapore on November 8, draws attention to a group in the Catholic Church that is often overlooked and mostly not understood.

Fifty-eight-year-old Father Rowland Yeo told UCAN, “We witness by our lives as lesser brothers, recognising that everyone is our brother and sister… and serving together with humility and generosity.”

He added, “We show the world that God can be encountered in every person and in everything; we believe that there is goodness and beauty in everything and everyone.”

However, historically this realisation was late in coming. The profoundly hearing-impaired were pushed to the margins of Church life, on occasions excluded from catechetical instruction and from most ministries in the Church—especially priesthood.

The exclusion was based on the presumption in high places that because they could not hear the word of God, they could not understand it.

Father Park Min-seo, from the archdiocese of Seoul, a profoundly hearing-impaired man who was ordained a priest in 2004, says in an article published in the New Theology Review (November 2009) that this position was based on a misinterpretation of Romans 10:17, which says, “Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”

The first breakthrough came in the 16th century, when a Spanish friar, Father Pedro Ponce de Leon, began teaching those who could not hear to recite prayers and go to confession.

They were then, for the first time, able to become members of the Church, but other barriers remained up until Vatican II.

It was only after the landmark council that hearing-impaired people were able to minister and the way was cleared for ordination to the priesthood.

Father Park first ministered at a liturgy when he was a student. The regular priest, who celebrated Mass in sign language, was sick and the parish priest asked him to run a liturgy, as he said it was not right to force the hearing-impaired to attend a hearing-enabled Mass, even with an interpreter, as the cultural model is wrong.

At the end of November, the first International Asian Conference for Deaf Catholics was held in Bangkok.

Father Peter Teerapong Kanpigul, the chaplain to the Deaf Catholic Association of Thailand, told CNA, “This conference is a unique gathering of pastors, religious and laity, who dialogue with their unique way of using sign language, sharing their daily life experiences of faith in the conservative cultures of Asia.”

He added that the purpose of the conference was to explore challenges facing the hearing-impaired, so they may feel more at home both in society and in the Church.

Father Kanpigul added that a big challenge lies in sensitising society so that the hearing-impaired may participate more fully in daily life.

Like Father Park, he explained that they do not need sympathy, but acceptance, and have space recognised for them to be themselves.

In March 2014, Pope Francis held an audience with the hearing-impaired and Father Cyril Axelrod, the only hearing-and sight-impaired priest in the world, said that he hopes the pope can do more to open up the road to priesthood and religious life for people like himself.

The newly-ordained Father Yeo says Amen to this. “I hope not only the deaf, but all who suffer any kind of handicap can believe in themselves and in God to fulfil one’s mission in life, no matter what the obstacles are,” he said.

But Father Park thinks the hearing-impaired have more to offer. He points out that sign language is not an inferior form of communication to the spoken word, but does give a different way of looking at the world, which can give insights that all may benefit from.


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