Be an Amazing Catechist
Wordless Wonder: Deaf Ministry Formation
Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words. ~ St. Francis of Assisi
Almost forty years ago, Sister Rita Ann Wigginton, OSU, discovered her life's mission while visiting the home of a fellow Ursuline nun. The family's unique situation captivated her. Of six girls, five had been sent to Catholic schools, but a deaf daughter had not. The Catholic schools couldn't afford services for the Deaf, so the family enrolled her in a hearing public school, where she was laboriously taught English through a complex process that did not include sign language. Adept at lip-reading, the young girl was able to cope at school and at home, but she felt marginalized in both environments.
The family, meanwhile, had regrets. They had failed her, they said, and wished they had all learned American Sign Language (ASL) in order to be closer and to more fully share the faith with her.
"Ten percent of deaf people are raised by deaf parents," says Sister. "Those children are much more likely to receive proper faith formation. But for the 90 percent of deaf people who have hearing parents, there's a real communication gap. Hearing parents want their kids to be just like them, to succeed, to speak their language. I'm very sympathetic to their feelings, but what they don't understand is that their children are not like them."
With her order's encouragement, the young Sister Rita Ann sought post-graduate training in Deaf Ministry. She earned a master's degree in Deaf Education from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and later went on to Boston College, where she earned a Certificate of Advanced Educational Specialization in Religious Education.
In the early years of working with the Deaf, Sister made some friends who changed the course of her life yet again. "A group of us met at a National Catholic Office for the Deaf conference, and then met regularly each fall to discuss what we could do to better serve the Deaf. At that time, we were adapting retreats, marriage preparation programs, and educational methods that worked with the hearing and using them with the Deaf," she says, "but we very much wanted to understand if deaf spirituality was different from hearing spirituality; so three of us wrote a proposal to the NCOD for a grant to do a study." The result was a book entitled, Eye Centered: A Study on the Spirituality of Deaf People, with Implications for Pastoral Ministry.
One of the most urgent recommendations arising from their work was that the Church should create programs for training deaf leaders. In 1993, their deaf colleague, Sister Maureen Langton, SSJ, developed the Ministry Formation Program for deaf and hard-of-hearing adults, which still operates in the Chicago area. Sister Rita Ann has taught in the program for years and is now its administrator. Its students come from dioceses all over the country.
Lisa Mladinich is a Catholic wife and mother, catechist and workshop leader, and the author of the popular booklets, "Be An Amazing Catechist: Inspire the Faith of Children," and "Be an Amazing Catechist: Sacramental Preparation" available from Our Sunday Visitor. She is the founder of www.AmazingCatechists.com.