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Article: During National Eucharistic Pilgrimage in Washington, Deaf Catholics reflect on their faith experience

Catherine Buckler

The Catholic Standard (Original article HERE)

Jun 11, 2024

While the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage began with a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday, June 8, followed by a Eucharistic procession that wound through the nearby Brookland neighborhood in Washington, D.C., meanwhile a stationary pilgrimage was underway at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, featuring a Mass and events for those who are deaf or live with a disability. Pilgrims interviewed there expressed the need for the greater accessibility from the Catholic Church. The Eucharistic procession ended outside that shrine with a Benediction and catechetical talks about the Eucharist.

Father Mike Depcik, the chaplain for Deaf Ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, celebrated the Mass in American Sign Language with an English voiceover by Mary O’Meara, who serves as the executive director of the Office of Deaf and Disabilities Ministry of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. The Mass took place in that shrine’s Redemptor Hominis Church.

During his homily, Father Depcik told a story about growing up deaf in a Deaf household that included five kids and his parents. With everyone communicating in ASL and having a shared experience, he never felt left out. One day, while at the store with his mother, however, he had a realization.

“I remember when I was maybe about four or five, we went to the store. I was with my mom and we were paying for something, and I looked over and saw this boy behind me. I started signing, and my mom said, ‘He’s hearing, he doesn’t understand you,’ and I said, ‘I’m so sorry,’” Father Depcik said, adding that he later learned that he is part of a Deaf community.

Referencing the Gospel reading from Luke, when Mary and Joseph were looking for Jesus, he said to them, “Did you not expect to find me in my father’s house?” Father Depcik said people need to find Jesus in themselves and love themselves.

“He's right here, he is already inside of us, and loves us. Unconditional love, even in the Eucharist Jesus gives Himself so that we can receive Him, so that we can help others. And yes, Jesus, He’s aware of our struggles, and yet still, that doesn’t stop Him… God loves us and accepts us for who we are,” Father Depcik said.

Father Depcik added that acknowledging God’s love for people helps them to accept that they are “made in His image.”

“I always love to say, ‘What could be the worst disability to happen to a person?’ I think each disability has its own challenge. That’s true. But the worst disability is not loving myself, that because I’m a self-prisoner, people know that I’m afraid and that I’m isolated or I feel alone, pushes people back,” Father Depcik said. “We pray that God helps us understand how much He loves us and how much he wants to be in relation to us.”

Judy and Jerrod Grill, a mother and son who are both deaf, shared with the Catholic Standard how Father Depcik impacted their relationship with the Church. Their interview was interpreted by Mary O’Meara.

“When I moved to Catonsville, Maryland, and lived there for many years, a deaf priest, Mike Depcik, came into town, and I was thrilled to be able to attend Mass and to understand,” Judy Grill said.

Jerrod Grill said that despite their parish having volunteers who offer to interpret, there was still a disconnect, which caused him to stop going to church in college. He now attends Mass in Fredrick, Maryland, at St. Ignatius of Loyola.

“It’s a country church where he celebrates Mass every Sunday, we go together, and it’s become our home parish. So Father Mike really has been wonderful in providing that ministry for deaf people,” Jerrod Grill said.

Father Depcik was the reason both Judy and Jerrod Grill attended the stationary pilgrimage.

“I love visiting the different parishes in Washington, D.C., and seeing all the different (sites). It’s on my bucket list to be able to come here (to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine). It’s one of the places that’s very modern in its design, so I was interested in coming to visit,” Jerrod Grill said. “It’s really a beautiful day to be here.”

Jerrod and Judy Grill both expressed the need for more deaf priests in the Catholic Church and more resources for those who are deaf and interested in becoming priests. Interpreters help, the Grills said, but there is still a degree of separation, as they both shared how there is a cultural component as well, to the deaf experience.

“Growing up, I felt very overlooked. Things went on in the church, but it didn’t really mean anything to me until (Father) Mike (Depcik) arrived, and I was able to understand the Gospel and how it related to my life,” Judy Grill said.

Her parents did not know how to sign, and they were not encouraged to use sign language. This impacted Judy Grill, who said she was not catechized when she was younger. It was not until she took a class and experienced a deaf priest giving homilies that she felt a deeper connection.

Next was a presentation at the stationary pilgrimage on saints with disabilities, led by Rachel Chung, the coordinator of Disability Ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington. The presentation was offered in spoken English and Spanish, as well as with ASL interpreter Gerardo Castillo.

The presentation began with Chung asking about people’s favorite saints or saints-in-the-making and reviewing how someone becomes a saint, beginning with a cause for sainthood from the diocese where the person died, and if a miracle is verified, then that person is declared blessed and beatified, and following the verification of a second miracle, that person is declared a saint and canonized.

The first saint in the presentation was St. René Goupil, who was a deaf person in present-day Canada who wanted to be a priest but was not allowed. He still traveled with Jesuit priests and was ordained just before his death.

During the catechesis on saints with disabilities, people were encouraged to partake in Eucharistic Adoration, tour the shrine, and read about Blessed Carlo Acutis in his exhibit, which included his relics as well as relics of St. John Paul II.

St. Margaret of Castello, Chung said, was hidden away by her parents, who were ashamed of her multiple disabilities, until she was ultimately abandoned. Although not allowed to join an order of women religious, she joined the lay Dominicans.

Other notable holy people who had disabilities included St. André Bessette, St. Anna Kim Agi, and St. Servulus of Rome.

The presentation included saints who lived within the Archdiocese of Washington and were disabled as well, including Servant of God Mary Virginia Merrick, who became paralyzed from a fall while a teenager and started the Christ Child Society to serve families in need, and Venerable Aloysius Schwartz, a missionary priest with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS.

Jaylee Casertano shared why it was important for him to attend the pilgrimage. His interview with the Catholic Standard was interpreted by Gerardo Castillo.

Casertano said Padre Pio, an Italian saint who experienced stigmata and healed the sick, inspires him and is the saint he looks up to the most.

“I just feel like he saved my faith, and he helped me stay in this. I feel that the miracles he worked with were also fascinating,” Casertano said.

“For young people especially, (the Catholic Church) needs to do more. I served the Catholic Church for six years now, and I don’t see young people there,” Casertano said. “They do believe in Jesus, but they don’t know exactly what the Catholic Church is. I don’t see the Catholic Church itself as focusing on its youth population.”

Casertano will be attending Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland in the fall, and hopes to study theology and psychology.

“I want to become a missionary. My goal is to help Deaf people, especially youth, who are searching for Jesus,” Casertano said.

While he is open to where he would like to do his missionary work, Casertano said he would like to visit South America.

“I do feel there are a lot of people with disabilities and people that are deaf and deaf plus that have no education, including no religion as well. So my goal is to expand on those young people so they can have more knowledge and learn more,” Casertano said.

“Deaf plus” is an inclusive term for those who are deaf with additional disabilities.

Following the presentation, pilgrims were given the opportunity for confession in ASL or adapted English, as well as an adapted praying of the rosary.

Attendees then waited for the Eucharistic procession of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage to make its way to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, where Washington Auxiliary Bishop Evelio Menjivar led a Benediction outside the shrine. Then a catechesis on the Eucharist was presented to the crowd gathered there, and afterward, lunch was served on the front lawn.


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