Asia's first conference for deaf Catholics shares the mission of evangelization

Asia's first conference for deaf Catholics shares the mission of evangelization

"Be Opened", the first Asia Deaf Catholic Conference, held Nov. 13-19 in Sam Phran, Thailand. Credit: Antonio Anup Gonsalves/CNA.
"Be Opened", the first Asia Deaf Catholic Conference, held Nov. 13-19 in Sam Phran, Thailand. Credit: Antonio Anup Gonsalves/CNA.

.- Last week Thailand hosted the first international Asian conference for deaf Catholics, which explored the pastoral challenges to integrating the deaf into the Church's life.

“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,” Fr. Peter Teerapong Kanpigul, chaplain of the Deaf Catholic Association in Thailand, told CNA.

“The scope is to to re-examine the situation so as to foster deeper understanding of pastoral challenges facing the deaf, in integrating them into liturgical and social life, both in the Church and in society.”

“Ephatha – Be Opened” was held Nov. 13-19 at the Catholic pastoral center in the Sam Phran District, about 25 miles west of Bangkok. The conference gathered more than 100 participants from Thailand, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Macau, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Sri Lanka, as well as the UK and US.

“The aim is also to promote better understanding and network with dioceses, interpreters, and sign languages, which vary from country to country, so as to foster and strengthen the apostolate of a participatory Asian Church to bolster the new evangelization,” Fr. Kanpigul added.

He noted that “There is a need for sensitization to cultural integration and the complex nature of sign languages, because the deaf become partly separated from the mainstream, participatory society.”

The meeting was hosted by Thai Deaf Catholic Association together with the Thai bishops' conference.

Fr. Kanpigul stressed that the deaf “don’t need our sympathy; rather they need to feel accepted. The recognition of their space and rights offers them a chance to be welcomed as one flock, which invites us to magnify and broaden our outlook, dialoguing about the complex challenges of hearing disabilities.”

In many Asian countires the deaf suffer isolation and marginalization due to cultural taboos, language, and ignorance, to the point of assuming that a hearing disability is a punishment for sin. But many of the deaf in Asia lost their hearing ability due to sickness in youth.

Father Charles Dittmeier, director of the deaf development program in Cambodia, told CNA, “deafness is an invisible disability, and so no one sees it and no one understands it, and most people don’t have experience with deaf people, or how the disability affects them and how to deal with it. Deaf persons are everywhere, they are standing in line behind us in supermarkets, but nobody knows until you start using sign language.”

“Deaf people learn through their eyes, not through their ears, so there is a need to train catechists and teachers to instruct visually,” Fr. Dittmeier, a priest from the United States who has worked with the Maryknoll missionaries for more than 30 years in India, China, and Cambodia, reflected. He has been involved in developing communications methods for the deaf, and is competent in more than six sign languages.

He acknowledged that the Church has provided many good schools for the deaf, while hoping that more will be done in the future.

“It’s fundamental that dioceses recognize the deaf people out there, and seek ways to integrate them,” he said.

“Pope Francis is urging more and more that we make an inclusive Church, welcoming the people who are on the margins: and deaf people truly are on the margins.”

In March 2014 Pope Francis held an audience with the deaf and the blind, encouraging them to be witnesses of Chrsit and to build a culture of encounter.

Another key speaker at the Thai congress was Fr. Cyril Axelrod, a Redemptorist, who is the world's only deaf and blind priest. He expressed hope that Pope Francis will further examine the challenges facing deaf persons, and help to open up vocations to the priesthood and religious life for those with hearing and other disabilities.

Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak of Bangkok, Cardinal Michael Michai Kitbunchu, emeritus Archbishopof Bangkok, Msgr. Andrew Vissanu Thanya Anan, Fr. Watchasin Kritjaroen, director of the  Pontifical Mission Society, Thailand, and Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, encouraged the conference's participants in their passion to be evangelizers.