We Are All of Us Deaf
The Catholic Church last year celebrated the bicentenary of its foundation, existence, growth and mission in Southern Africa. The celebration’s theme, attributed to St John Paul II, was: “Let us remember the past with gratitude, live the present with enthusiasm, and look forward to the future with confidence.”
Remembering the past offers us an opportunity to celebrate successes, acknowledge failures, and resolve to do better as we move forward.
Some of the areas in which the local Church historically contributed to the progress of the country’s people include education and health care, especially among the vulnerable, poor and destitute of society regardless of their race or creed.
Countless religious men and women laboured in schools, training centres and hospitals across the country. Even though their numbers have now declined and their direct involvement has diminished, the institutions which they established continue to thrive, some against all odds.
One such ministry, perhaps less known, is the education of the deaf people.
I was privileged to discover this interesting bit of local Church history when I carried out my pastoral internship three years ago in the parishes near St Thomas’ School for the Deaf.
King William’s Town Dominicans
Hidden among the woods on a remote hill between King William’s Town and Stutterheim, on the border shared by the dioceses of Port Elizabeth and Queenstown, this school was opened in 1962 to care for the needs of hearing-impaired Xhosa children, taking into consideration the individual needs of each pupil.
It was the initiative of Bishop Ernest Green of Port Elizabeth who, as a priest in Cape Town, was chaplain to a school for the deaf before his appointment as bishop.
Bishop Green was renowned for acting as interpreter for deaf people in court cases.
His genuine affection for the deaf inspired the construction of St Thomas’ school. It was run by the King Dominican Sisters as a diocesan school until it became a public one a few years ago and was eventually incorporated into the provincial department of education.
From its humble beginnings of just 17 pupils, the school now serves about 250 pupils every year, from Grade 1 through to matric, coming from all corners of the Eastern Cape.
Given their long-standing relationship, the pupils are free to join the parish community for Mass on Sundays. It is a moving experience to see all the children of God worshipping together, each according to their capacity.
Incidentally, on one Sunday when the gospel of the healing of the deaf and dumb man was read (Mark 7:31-37), a celebration of the sacrament of baptism took place during Mass.
A catechetical moment naturally provided itself in reference to the “Ephphatha/Be opened” ritual when the priest/deacon traces the sign of the cross over the mouth and ears of the newly baptised with the formula: “The Lord Jesus made the deaf hear and the dumb speak. May he soon touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his faith, to the praise and glory of God the Father.”
We are all deaf to the word of God until we are awakened
A bond between parishioners and the community of the deaf was forged—signalled by a crossing over during the sign of peace—because it was explained that we all are deaf in some way when we do not listen and respond to the Word of God.
An encounter like this is important to the children at St Thomas’ because they often feel isolated, being away from family and friends for the whole academic year.
And it is important also for the non-deaf so that we understand better the needs of the deaf in our society.
It is hard to calculate the rate of success, or trace the personal histories of the countless pupils who have passed through the school, with some having emerged as skilled artisans.
But the very existence of this school and like institutions indicates that the Catholic Church is concerned about the integral formation of all people. A solid foundational education profits the individual and in turn has a positive influence on society at large.
Such initiatives by the local Church should not be forgotten and must continue, even in this next phase of evangelisation.