QUAERITUR: Can a deaf priest say Mass in the Extraordinary Form?

From a reader:

I recently came across this article about a deaf priest recently ordained for  ___.  I’m curious – could a deaf priest ever say an EF Mass?  It seems to me that the rubrics would either (1) require him to actively speak or (2) even if he could “speak” the Latin through sign language, an EF Mass would require him to both “speak” and use his hands for non-speaking purposes at the same time.  Thanks for your time.

Back in the day, I mean quite a while ago, I suspect that a man who had never had the use of hearing from birth, would probably have been consider not suitable for Holy Orders.  I believe that is relaxed now, but it would bring up some difficulties, concerning receiving sacramental confessions and the like.  But in the modern period, sign language has become more sophisticated and our understanding of ways people genuinely communicate are broader.

That said, I don’t believe that the forms of sacraments can be done in sign language.  I think they must be pronounced aloud, even if very quietly, even if there is some assistance through one of those buzzing gadgets that help people who have lost their voices.

In the case of a man who goes deaf after the use of hearing, who would have also the use of normal speech for the most part, I cannot see why he could not say Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

Think about this.  For how many centuries was the EF the only form of Mass?  During those centuries did any priests lose their hearing?  Did they stop saying Mass?

Come to think of it, the regularity and rhythm of the Extraordinary Form, which is far less verbal and chatty than the Ordinary Form, would be much easier to celebrate without the use of normal hearing.

The priest who is deaf might have a harder time speaking quietly the parts which are so indicated in the rubrics, unless he is disciplined.

If the priest is a little louder during the Canon than he should be, oh well… the world will not come to an end if once in a while people hear the words of consecration in the Extraordinary Form.  Maybe the perfect rhythm of the prayers at the foot of the altar is somewhat offset by the priest’s timing… oh well.. he’ll get up to the altar eventually.

These are the things we can relax about.

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  1. Charivari Rob says:

    Interesting question.

    A couple of priests I know here who are active with the apostolate for the deaf. One of them has some degree of hearing impairment himself. I’ll see if I remember to pass it along when next I see them. They’re out of country at the moment, though, accompanying a World Youth Day group.

    One place that would probably have people with an informed opinion would be the seminary in (I think) Menlo Park, California. They have a program there for the deaf.

    If nothing else, could dispensation be secured? After all, St. Isaac Jogues received dispensation which allowed him to celebrate the Mass even though his hands were mutilated.

  2. dans0622 says:

    Dr. Peters wrote an article on this subject a couple of years ago, in Studia canonica. You are correct, Fr., in that priests who were unable to speak (lack of hearing might go along with it but that isn’t the issue–speaking is) were considered by some (most? all?) theologians and canonists to be impeded, by divine law, from receiving Holy Orders: since they could not speak, they could not administer any Sacraments. However, as you mention, Fr., the understanding of sign language as a true form of communication has only recently come about. The ultimate point of Dr. Peters was that a Sacramental form that is performed entirely in signs, without any vocalization, can be valid. Hopefully, Dr. Peters will stop by and offer his own expert opinion.

  3. Random Friar says:

    I know a few hearing-impaired priests, and they all can vocalize in a way that is understandable, if sounding a little “accented” from not forming the words perfectly. While sign language is a perfectly valid form of communication (and I imagine that the medievals had some facility with this, monks using proto-sign languages, and St. Francis de Sales, I believe, teaching a young, deaf person from birth person via a sign language of his making), my understanding is that an actual, spoken word is still necessary sacramentaly. I’d be interested in what Rome has had to say on this matter.

  4. Stephen Matthew says:

    I don’t know of any deaf priests myself, but we do have a blind seminarian in our diocese, which must require some heroic efforts to complete the required studies.

    In case of a priest who is deaf but does have speech, it would seem hearing confessions would be the most problematic point.

  5. Pachomius says:

    Was it not the usual practice at ordinations for the Canon to be recited aloud, in any case?

    I do recall in one parish where I lived there was at one point a regular (OF) mass for the deaf, but I think the priest signed either before or after he had spoken/performed the required action, and it was celebrated by a hearing priest.

  6. Joshua08 says:

    I am not sure about Ed Peter’s opinion here. As a matter of theology, I would say he is dead wrong. But in anycase, the discipline of the Church requires vocalization, regardless of form as it stands now.

    A blind priest is another matter entirely. Formerly, a priest going blind could get a dispensation to say the same Mass every day (it was either a Marian Mass or a Mass for the dead I believe). The idea was that he could memorize it. I suppose braille helps alleviate that. Though, even if not required any more, the old requirement that another priest (or at least a cleric) assist him would make sense. The same rule existed if you lost one arm, you needed an assistant.

  7. BLB Oregon says:

    Deafness and muteness aren’t the same thing, even for people who are deaf from birth, but there have been papers concerning the ordination of and celebration of sacraments by priests who are bereft of speech.

    Here is a quite a list of articles on the general subject: http://www.canonlaw.info/catholicissuesdeafbib.htm that might be of help.

  8. BLB Oregon says:

    I know just enough about the political differences between the deaf who advocate for oral communication on one end of the spectrum and those who reject it on the other that this has to be quite a hot potato. For instance, there are those in the Deaf Community who believe forcing a person who communicates via ASL into oral communication is a form of subjugation. They advocate for “visucentric public discourse”.

    Then there is the issue of how to translate from Latin into ASL. I cannot begin to imagine the difficulties (and differences of opinion) that arise when attempting that.

  9. medievalist says:

    “Back in the day, I mean quite a while ago, I suspect that a man who had never had the use of hearing from birth, would probably have been consider not suitable for Holy Orders.”

    Yes, men with ‘defects’ were barred from admission to Holy Orders, I believe on a scriptural basis about the wholeness of priests. Interestingly, I’m not aware that a papal dispensation was available for physical defects while men not born legitimately were routinely able to obtain dispensation and even rise in the ecclesiastical ranks. At least one medieval archbishop of York, John le Romeyn, was the illegitimate son of the treasurer of York.

  10. capchoirgirl says:

    On the other side of the coin: I have a cochlear implant, and at my Parish, it’s only behind the screen confessions (which I prefer). But it does lead to some interesting issues, because I have to go to one I can understand when he is speaking quietly and I can’t see his mouth (I read lips–sort of). I wish sometimes that we could pass notes back and forth–or I could talk, and he could write!

  11. capchoirgirl says:

    BLB Oregon: Well, ASL is actually pretty easy to translate, because a lot of things are implied. ASL isn’t Signing Exact English (that’s a whole other thing). So the interpreter would need to work off an English translation of the Latin, and go from there, because there is no Latin sign language (although there is French, German, British, etc.). Verbs, for example, are often simply implied in ASL instead of being signed, and there are no conjugations for tenses.

  12. Federico says:

    I am not sure about Ed Peter’s opinion here. As a matter of theology, I would say he is dead wrong.

    Interesting — I’m curious what you think is the hard theological basis for the requirement for vocalization. At any rate I hope you are not suggesting this is true for all sacraments. If that were the case, then those who exchange marriage consent non-verbally are invalidly married.

  13. Reginald Pole says:

    I was under the impression that vocalization was not required, though the lips must form the words.

  14. Reginald Pole says:

    I was under the impression that vocalization was not required, though the lips must form the words.

  15. Random Friar says:

    Marriage has not required verbalization, but some clear sign of intent, which could even be done by proxy.

    Canon 1104.2 The spouses are to express their matrimonial consent in words; if, however, they cannot speak, then by equivalent signs.

  16. Fr Bede Rowe says:

    I offer the EF as well as sign Mass for the deaf. There is often a confusion between the Mass in Sign Language (In the UK this is BSL British Sign language) and a Mass which is simultaneously translated into BSL. Both of these things can be done.

    In the OF, if a priest is saying the Mass, the I can sign (translate) it. Or I can offer the Mass is BSL in which case I should not speak, but do so out of courtesy.

    I can also translate an EF Mass from Latin straight into BSL, as BSL is a language in its own right. A little more complicated but possible.

  17. Melody says:

    Since becoming friends with someone deaf from birth, I have discovered that ASL is a beautiful and expressive language. Although I doubt a TLM mass could be celebrated (due to ASL being based in English), what about mass in the ordinary form?
    Many deaf from birth cannot speak, sign is the only language they know. When my friend signs he is communicating with the same thought and intent as when I speak English. With this in mind, I respectfully disagree with your statement that a sacrament could not be conducted in ASL.
    Although rubrics which call for simultaneous words and actions are problematic, confession and absolution could be conducted in the language.
    The real problem is the lack of proper ASL rubrics.

  18. Conchur says:

    There is a deaf mute priest in South Korea, Fr Benedict Park Min-Seo, and an England-based South African deaf blind priest, Fr Cyril Axelrod.

  19. Charivari Rob says:

    Conchur – “There is a deaf mute priest in South Korea, Fr Benedict Park Min-Seo…”

    Interesting that you should mention him, for it’s the second time in a day I’ve heard of him. I just read about him yesterday in an update from one of our Boston priests in Spain. There is a Korean deaf group at WYD. The assorted deaf groups met for a joint catechetical session.

    “Good People,

    There must have been at least 7 different interpreting going on all at once for the Catechesis for Mass. The Bishop spoke in Spanish with a strong accent of some kind I have never heard and on notable interpreting situation was Fr. Minso Park (sp?) reading the ASL and interpreting that into Korean Sign. He is Deaf and studied at Galudette so is fluent in both ASL and KSL.

    We have been meeting with many of the Deaf from all over the world and the youth really are enjoying sharing languages and getting to know each other. It is such a great thing to be with the Deaf community for WYD.

    In Christ,

    Fr. St. Martin”


  20. dans0622 says:

    Now having the article of Dr. Peters in hand, the reference is: Studia canonica 42/2, (2008), p. 331-345. I think the most important point he makes, drawing on St. Thomas, is that the essential meaning of the sacramental form must be communicated in order for the Sacrament to be valid. Pointing to the fact that the form of Sacraments has been translated into various languages from the beginning, he states: “one must be aware that what is crucial is not the language the minister uses, but rather the ability of that language to express or communicate the divinely-willed sense of the sacramental form. Recognizing that sign languages are fully human languages, today we can say that what is required for sacramental form is the direct expression (in italics) or communication (in italics) of the form, not its ‘orality’…” (p. 343).

  21. Joshua08 says:

    Perhaps my objection is best phrased this way. I deny that sign language is a “fully human language” in the sense that words are. Vox, the word, refers FIRST to the spoken word, and by analogy to the written word. Sign language is not a vox, it uses words in an analogous way.

    I do understand that marriage, where the form is the handing over of the marital right to the other (the matter is the right itself) has the loosest of all sacraments for the spoken form. I admit that is a trickier area.

    Still, it should give canonists like Peters great pause that great majority of theologians deny that a mute person can validly say give baptism. While I would certainly favor a mute person attempting a baptism in emergencies in absence of others (after all conditional baptism can occur later if the person recovers), I would not be able to affirm with the certainty required its validity in order to morally conduct a normal baptism in sign

    We need to stop pretending this is a new issue or assuming that great new insights have been reached. What we have is a group of people, the deaf community, that include some that are anti -words and others taking this seriously (deafness, blindness etc are DEFECTs after all, not things of pride). My mom is severely hard of hearing, and I do know some who censure her for not relying on sign, but rather speech, aids, reading lips.

    If someone signs the form, it must be remembered he is not using words, but signs of words. Would it be valid to write “I baptise you etc” while pouring water? I do admit there is a difference in the communicability of the act. Of course it may be difficult to pour the water and sign at the same time (the same person must do both) even if it would be valid.

  22. Ana says:


    I would challenge you that you do not have a full understanding of Sign Language or the profoundly deaf community. To say that some are “anti-words” smacks of a level of presumption towards those that defend the use of sign language. Not all deaf people are capable of lip reading, speech, or the use of hearing aids on a level that they do not need Sign Language as their primary form of communication although your mom appears able to. This does not make their desire to use Sign Language defective even if the need for Sign Language is due to a defect. Deaf people, especially the profoundly deaf that were born deaf, do have their own community, a language that is not a word for word imitation of the language of the native land, and needs. I would suggest that your definition of Sign Language being an analogous was of speaking lacks a full understanding of the development of Sign Language. Yes, the signs are the equivalent of English words, but so are Spanish words and just as translating English to Spanish or Spanish to English one cannot just translate the words, the meaning has to be translated properly which means there is more to translating Sign Language from a language than an imitation sign of the word.

  23. An update on this particular priest that I received.

    I just want to clarify something about -priest-, the deaf priest from -somewhere-. He read lips perfectly and also speaks perfectly well. He says Mass in ASL and speaks it at the same time and hears confessions face to face. He’s an amazing priest and a real gift to the diocese!!!

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