Deaf and Hearing Together – a Profound Experience


The Deaf Service has been part of the diocese of Westminster since 1976 and was incorporated into Caritas Westminster when it was launched in 2012. However, the Deaf Community’s history with Westminster Cathedral goes back to at least the 1930s. Whilst the Deaf Community have their own strong identity, great things can happen when Deaf and hearing people come together to worship or go on pilgrimage. For Catholic Deaf Awareness week 2023, we have been asking people what impact these joint events have had on them.  Shell Roca, Caritas Deaf Service tells us:

Over the years Caritas Deaf Service has been welcomed to many parishes and one example of where all the aspects of our work have come together is in Welwyn Garden City.  Here we have run British Sign Language (BSL) taster courses giving people the opportunity to learn basic sign BSL, prayers, the responses at Mass and simple hymns.  Deaf parishioners and their families are included at signed Masses with many of the congregation joining in the signing. 

Parishioners commented on how they have enjoyed having Deaf and hearing people worshipping together:

“As a family we enjoyed signed Holy Mass very much. My children love to join in sign language throughout the Mass and learn to praise God in a different language.”  

“I have had a few courses of sign language to be able to sign some songs, prayers and responses throughout the Holy Mass. I enjoyed it very much and had so much fun seeing others joining us.”

We have visited some amazing places with the parish and with others from different parishes who have joined us on these trips.  From Rheims, to Padua, Venice to Avignon the Deaf Community have worshipped, prayed, laughed and learned alongside the hearing parishioners.  These trips build us together as a community, as brothers and sisters in Christ, not two separate groups but one sharing our experiences together. Alina Matt, a hearing parishioner, told us what a profound experience a pilgrimage was for her.

“On our first pilgrimage together it was a new experience for me to be among Deaf people – but a very rewarding one.  Previously I had not appreciated how hard it is to communicate if one does not know how to sign.  It could be quite frustrating not to be able to properly express myself, so that nuances of speech could be understood, but the willingness to help, humour and good nature of the Deaf Pilgrims made each attempt at communication worthwhile.  It made me realise how frustrating it must be for the Deaf on an everyday basis.

“The most rewarding experience for me was (and is) the signed Mass.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to make the responses at Mass or recite the prayers in “auto” mode.  Trying to follow the signing made me think much more about the words I am saying or expressing in these prayers; partly because we were saying them at a slightly slower pace, but partly because the physical act of making a sign to represent a word, thought or concept made me concentrate much more on what I was doing.  When singing and signing (or trying to) it felt as though my whole body was responding not just my mouth and head. 

“So for me the experience of going on pilgrimage with Deaf Pilgrims is a profound one for which I am very grateful and which I believe has helped to deepen my faith.”

Another parishioner, Peter Vincent said:

“There have been no barriers created or imagined and it has just seemed to be a natural group of pilgrims / worshippers celebrating together. The enthusiasm and vitality of all involved has helped all the community.  I think all involved have benefitted from being together.  All have participated and contributed equally.  This includes leading the singing, readings at Mass, entertaining at socials and parties, enjoying the coach trips and absorbing the local sites and atmosphere.  The participation of all in Fr. Norbert’s “Rise and Shine” song with actions is a sight to behold!  I have always been impressed by how all our group, Deaf and otherwise, have been up for any trip, experience, or meal.”

Maria Vargas recalled:

“Meeting people from the Deaf Community has been a rich and positive experience for me, and made me more aware to reach out to people and appreciate ways in which we can be together and enjoy each other’s company.” 

A member of the Deaf Community summed up how special these pilgrimages have been:

“I really enjoy them, they are really worthwhile going on. Pilgrimages are really interesting, they are a chance to make friends, learn about the history of the place we are visiting. There is the opportunity to pray and they make me feel good.”

A Big Thank you to our Signing Priests

In Westminster we are blessed with a group of clergy who can sign: Bishop Paul McAleenan, Canon Shaun Lennard, Fr Keith Stoakes, Fr Willie Skehan, Fr Paulo Bagini and Fr Brian O’Mahony as well as Canon Norbert Fernandes from Welwyn Garden City who says: 

“My various parishes’ connections with the Westminster Caritas Deaf Service have brought me and my people so many blessings. We’ve had deep and prayerful experiences.  We’ve had so much fun and laughter. We’ve learned from each other and enriched lives. As a priest it’s been such a privilege to celebrate Masses and Confessions, lead retreat days and pilgrimages, to enable, with Shell and Sarah [Deaf Service staff members] such a normality about being together. THANK YOU!”  

For more information about Caritas Deaf Service please contact Shell Roca: email or Tel/SMS: 07779 341136.

Visit the Caritas Deaf Service website.

see also: Lourdes in Aylesford – Visiting the Relics of St Bernadette

You may be interested in: Not volunteering, but serving – a Red Cap’s experience in Lourdes

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