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Sarah SparksJuly 20, 2021
Father Stephen Saffron, parish administrator, elevates the Eucharist during a traditional Tridentine Mass on July 18, 2021, at St. Josaphat Church in the Queens borough of New York City (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Someone makes an announcement at the beginning of Mass. It must have been about the entrance hymn, because everyone has turned to a different hymnal page than is listed in the bulletin. Quickly, I catch up. I do not sing, though: The sound of my own voice tends to overpower the auditory cues necessary for me to keep pace with the congregation. The readings are not printed in the bulletin, and there are no missalettes, so I have the Sunday Scripture ready on my iPhone. I notice the occasional glare from a parishioner who assumes that I am checking my email or Facebook during the Gospel.

I sit through the homily without understanding it, but I’ll ask someone for a summary later. The priest preaches extemporaneously, so he cannot provide me with an advance copy, although I’ve asked. For the entire Mass, I am a second behind everyone else with the congregational responses. The priest tells a joke just before the dismissal, and I laugh along with everyone else despite not knowing what was said. Throughout the Mass, he has inserted a few improvisational comments that I did not catch, but I smile in those moments, too, because that is how everyone else is responding.

By the end of Mass, it is decision time: Do I try to socialize at coffee hour despite the fellowship hall’s terrible acoustics, knowing that I will leave tired and with a headache? Or do I go home and conserve my listening energy for interactions with the people I love most?

This is my typical experience of attending Mass in the vernacular as a deaf Catholic, if it is said in English. I use cochlear implants—surgically implanted prostheses that stimulate the auditory nerve. The implanted components do nothing on their own, but when I am wearing my sound processors (which look almost like hearing aids), my implants give me the ability to hear, albeit imperfectly.

Implants do not provide normal hearing, and deaf people who use them do not hear the way hearing people hear. There is a lot that we miss, especially in noisy situations, at a distance from the talker and in echoey spaces with hard floors and high ceilings. I am also an audiologist who works with implants, and I have done everything possible to optimize my hearing devices for listening during Mass. I use additional equipment like microphones that the priest can wear that stream directly to my implants, too. But amazing as these technologies are, they do not provide complete access in all listening situations.

Each deaf or hard-of-hearing person faces different communication challenges. Mass is one of the most challenging listening situations of my week. Unless I attend Mass in American Sign Language or an ASL interpreter is present for Mass in English, Sunday is not a day of rest for me; it is a day of exhaustion.

I have no doubts at all about the value of Mass in the vernacular and that the intention of the Second Vatican Council was to encourage lay participation and inclusion in worship. But for me, Mass in the vernacular does not work that way. Attending ASL Mass means that I get to worship with my friends in the Deaf community, but my hearing friends and family cannot participate fully. Attending Mass in English means the opposite: The hearing people in my life can participate fully, but I do not have complete access to the liturgy.

Mass is one of the most challenging listening situations of my week.

Having an interpreter does not necessarily mean I will have equal access. Not all interpreters are familiar with Catholic theology, and mistranslations sometimes result. For example, I have seen the concept “communion of saints” interpreted as “Eucharist of saints” during Mass. Often, I can make sense of these errors, but doing so multiple times during the same liturgy requires effort beyond what most Catholics have to expend for worship.

Raising accessibility concerns with priests and parish council members has done little to improve accessibility. Often, I have been told that improving accessibility is too expensive, that I speak very well and certainly hear better than I say I do, or that I should just go to the Deaf parish or a parish that already has an interpreter instead.

That is why I started attending the traditional Latin Mass. I do love bells and smells, but I can live without them. Feeling included as part of the body of Christ—that is an aspect of the Mass that I should not have to live without. I go to Latin Mass because it is the one place where, for the most part, my hearing loved ones and I have equal access to the liturgy.

Regardless of what auditory information I miss, I can determine where we are in the liturgy by using the rich visual input that the Latin Mass offers. The priest is either at the epistle side of the altar, or he is at the Gospel side. His hands are in different positions for different prayers. He is wearing a biretta and other vestments at specific moments. The altar and congregation are being incensed in unique moments, too. Everyone reads from the missal—not just I as a deaf person. I can read the Scriptures for the day along with all the faithful. I do not have to worry about reading lips because the priest is facing ad orientem, and no one, regardless of hearing status, can see his face. There are no improvisations or jokes to smile through because there are no spoken deviations from the written form of the liturgy. There are very few congregational responses, so I do not feel left out being a second behind. I still have to rely on another person’s summary of the homily, but that is one inequitable aspect among many others where I do feel included equitably.

The Latin Mass has given me an incredible gift: A greater sense of belonging and inclusion than I have found in contemporary Mass parishes with a dominant hearing culture.

Pope Francis’ recent declaration of restrictions upon the Latin Mass leaves me with mixed emotions. In one sense, I agree with Zac Davis’s recent reflection on attitudes that can arise among Latin Mass enthusiasts. I have witnessed negative attitudes among traditionalists about the contemporary Mass, Vatican II and all modern theological developments. However, the Latin Mass has given me an incredible gift: A greater sense of belonging and inclusion than I have found in contemporary Mass parishes with a dominant hearing culture.

If the Latin Mass that I attend currently were to cease, I would be back to square one for determining which aspects of myself I am willing to sacrifice on Sunday. Do I attend ASL Mass, where my hearing loved ones access the liturgy through a voice interpreter but do not know the language and are not part of the majority culture in the parish? Or do I attend Mass in English, where the hearing people in my life have full access to the liturgy but I do not? Will I have to attend Mass at a parish that places the burden for an accessible liturgy solely on deaf people? Will I be told for the dozenth time, “Just go to the Deaf parish instead”?

If desire for unity is the church’s justification for limiting the Latin Mass, I wonder where I fit in to the body of Christ. Unity is not just about abled people. Deaf people and others with disabilities should have full access to the Mass, and we should not have to bear the burden of accessibility by ourselves.

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