For the estimated 5,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, parish participation can be difficult.
From homilies to retreats, normal Church events can be inaccessible to those with auditory disabilities, unless specific accommodations are made in advance.
Dr. Tomas Garcia Jr., who has been deaf since childhood, knows these challenges well.
And now, he’s helping shed light on some of those challenges in his ministry as one of the newest deacons for the archdiocese.
Deacon Garcia is the director of ministries at Holy Angels Catholic Church of the Deaf in Vernon, California. In addition, he is an associate professor of American Sign Language at East Los Angeles College.
He is also bilingual and as a permanent deacon will be able to reach out to serve other Catholics with auditory disabilities in Los Angeles.
“I was born with a hearing loss and progressively began losing more at a rapid pace,” he told CNA. “By the time I reached school age, I was profoundly deaf.”
While his family grieved when they learned of his disability, Deacon Garcia believes it brought them all closer to God.
At eight years old, Deacon Garcia attended Bible study classes with his grandmother.
“I always thought she was also taking me because she wanted me to recover from my hearing loss,” he said.
“Eventually, I realized she saw that I had the call.”
That call was fulfilled on June 11, when Archbishop José H. Gomez ordained Garcia and 12 other men to the deaconate.
“The deacon is service sacramentalized,” said Dr. William J, Shaules, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ associate coordinator for diaconate formation.
“Deacon Garcia and his wife have heightened our awareness of service to the deaf community. Not only what it means, but what it actually looks like.”
Deacon Garcia interprets the liturgy in American Sign Language, Spanish, and English for parishioners. Before his ordination, he interpreted for priests during workshops, blessings, and retreats.
Holy Angels Catholic Church of the Deaf works to serve the needs of those with auditory disabilities. Latinos make up 95 percent of its parishioners. Most of these families are monolingual speakers of Spanish.
The parish is one of the few places Spanish-speaking parents and their deaf children can go to Mass together and all understand the liturgy.
“There’s a great need for the deaf faithful to experience the Sacraments in their own language,” Deacon Garcia said.
He recalled going to a youth retreat at the parish when he was in high school. Before attending, he could only follow the liturgy by reading the Roman Missal. When he saw two priests at the retreat sign with American Sign Language, he said, “I could laugh and cry, and truly feel as I belong to this community we call the Body of Christ.”
Though a parish may have a sign language interpreter during the Mass, Deacon Garcia said, “at Holy Angels Catholic Church of the Deaf, everyone signs.”
“The deaf feel at home and they can form loving, lasting relationships with members of their community through a common language.”
In 2005, Deacon Garcia received his first cochlear implant and in 2010, his second. He made it a point, “to participate in the Spanish track and to try to do so without an interpreter.”
Eventually, Deacon Garcia learned to participate in a Spanish program and not rely on an interpreter. He is now able to help parishioners feel more comfortable receiving some of the sacraments in American Sign Language or Spanish.
The parish also streams the Liturgy of the Word online, to accommodate people in the archdiocese and around the nation.
Pope Francis drew attention to persons with disabilities at the Vatican’s recent Jubilee for the Sick and Disabled, held June 9-12.
“People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity,” the Pope tweeted for the occasion.
Deacon Garcia said the Pope’s jubilee was “a powerful testament to remind ourselves of the need to reach out and ‘encounter’ those on the margin of society, or even, at the margin of our parishes.”
He explained that many of those who are deaf have not seen God’s mercy and grace made visible; many struggle with their deaf identity; and many experience discrimination in all forms.
“These people,” he said, “need to be comforted, healed and strengthened by the Eucharist…something that can happen if people reach out to them and invite them into the Father’s home.”