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Vatican sign language project brings Pope Francis’ words to all

ASL interpretation of Pope Francis’ Sunday Regina Coeli address on April 18, 2021. ASL interpretation of Pope Francis’ Sunday Regina Coeli address on April 18, 2021./ YouTube screenshot.

Pope Francis’ Wednesday and Sunday speeches to the public will now be accessible in American Sign Language.

The Vatican’s communications office announced the “no one left out” initiative at the end of last month. It is now in an experimental phase.

Sr. Veronica Amata Donatello, a member of the Alacantarine Franciscan Sisters, told CNA that the project uses the tool of sign language to allow “everyone to receive the Word of God and the words of the pope.”

“Because the Gospel and the words of the successors of Peter are addressed to all,” she said.

Donatello is the head of the disabilities office for the Italian bishops’ conference, which provides live sign language interpretation for televised Masses and other religious programming on Italian television.

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The Franciscan sister is now partnering with Vatican News to help bring the pope’s words to deaf people around the world in both Italian Sign Language (LIS) and American Sign Language (ASL).

For now, live LIS interpretation is available, while the videos with ASL interpretation are posted the next day. Each type of sign language has a dedicated playlist on YouTube.

Sign language interpretation is available for Pope Francis’ Wednesday general audience catechesis and Sunday Angelus or Regina Coeli prayer.

Sr. Donatello said that the Church can better serve people with disabilities by, “as the Holy Father reminds us, putting those at the peripheries, the discarded, at the center, listening to them in the decision-making process, in the involvement of proposals.”

Donatello, who grew up knowing both Italian and sign language, said that, as a Church, we need to move past the perspective of holding special “events” or a “Day of…” for people with disabilities, to include them in ordinary life.

“Even people with severe, complex disabilities have a ‘place’ and are active subjects,” she said. “Only by overcoming the pietistic and welfare point of view can one think of a Church for and with everyone.”

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Sr. Donatello is able to hear, but she has deaf parents and several deaf relatives, so sign language was her first language. She also has a disabled brother.

Disability has always been part of her life, she explained, and it also had an impact on her vocation to consecrated life.

“My brother Claudio taught me that our brains, our way of doing, of being, of thinking, and of tracing an alternative path, that is, to identify a ‘Plan B,’ is another way to encounter the other,” she said.

“The possibility of using multiple languages,” she added, “has allowed a flexibility as well as a resilience that only those who experience this pain as beauty can understand.”

“Every day we have learned to enjoy the joy of life, hope.”

The sister said that she and her brother might seem “absurd” in the eyes of others, yet they have learned “we must descend into the depths of these wounds (or openings) to experience the joy of the Resurrection.”

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The Italian bishops’ conference has been working to include people with disabilities in the ordinary life of the Catholic Church since 1970, Donatello said. But more recently the conference also formed the National Service for the Pastoral Care of People with Disabilities, the office which she leads.

“We work in synergy (with parishes, with pastoral workers, the family and welfare structures) to combat religious, cognitive, and community prejudice so that more and more, in every aspect of life, people with disabilities are subjects and can express their belonging to the Christian community,” she said.

“The desire is to let people with disabilities know not only their diagnosis but who they really are and who the people around them are,” she added. “It is important that the Church also does not lose sight of them.”

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