04 September 2018

‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ Sunday Reflections, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Mark 7:31-37 in Filipino Sign Language

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel Mark 7:31-37 (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition)

Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

Old Man in Sorrow (At Eternity's Gate), Van Gogh [Web Gallery of Art]
In the Second Reading today St James asks in his blunt way, If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

In 1982 I spent three months working in a hospital in a city in the the US Midwest. I noticed that a particular nurse always wore a pro-life badge, for which I admired her. But in the three months I was there as chaplain to patients and staff on the floor we both worked on she never spoke to me except at a weekly staff meeting. I was curious rather than hurt by this and before I finished I asked her if we could meet. I told her what I had noticed and expressed my admiration for her quiet pro-life stand. She was quite taken aback, as she had never been conscious of ignoring me. It turned out that she had once had a bad experience with a priest and had 'tuned out' on all priests. We had a very good conversation and ended up hugging each other.

The nurse had been making distinctions but was far from being a judge with evil thoughts. We can be such, by deliberately shutting out another person or group of persons from our life. But very often we are unaware of others or of their needs.

Fr Joseph Coyle 
(28 February 1937 - 18 December 1991)

One group of persons that is largely ignored in the Church, is the Deaf. Those who are profoundly deaf refer to themselves as a group as 'The Deaf', with an upper-case 'D'. One of my late Columban colleagues, Fr Joseph Coyle from the city of Derry in Northern Ireland, worked for many years in what is now the Diocese of Kabankalan, in the southern part of the province of Negros Occidental. Early in his time in remote parishes he became aware of the needs of persons who had lost limbs. He helped many to get artificial limbs. 

But later he noticed that there were persons who were more or less totally isolated, even from their own families - persons who were profoundly deaf from birth or from early childhood. They did not even have a common language with their parents or siblings. Their deafness was experienced as an affliction by themselves and their families. They all felt a sense of powerlessness.

In English the word 'dumb' has come to mean 'stupid' because of the perception in the past that those who used to be described as 'deaf and dumb' were stupid.

Fr Joe Coyle then focused his ministry on the Deaf. In the late 1980s he set up a residence in Bacolod City, Welcome Home, for out-of-town students so that they could attend schools with special education programmes for the Deaf. That particular need is now being met more and more in public schools in other cities and towns.

One of the services of Welcome Home Foundation, Inc. today is to send catechists to local public schools where there are profoundly deaf students. Some of these catechists are themselves profoundly deaf. Welcome Home also strongly encourages parents of profoundly deaf children to learn Sign Language and holds classes for them.

On the first Sunday of the month, during the academic year, the Deaf in Bacolod City are especially welcome at Sunday Mass in the public chapel of the University of Negros Occidental - Recoletos (UNO-R). On the second Sunday they have Mass in the public chapel attached to the Diocesan seminary. On the last Sunday they participate in one of the Masses at the Cathedral. On other Sundays they have Mass at Welcome Home. While based in Bacolod City from 2002 until 2017 I regularly celebrated that Mass, using my limited Sign Language and with the help of interpreters, some of them profoundly deaf.

But I know that there have been times when parishioners and priests in various places have complained that signing interpreters were a 'distraction'. In some instances the Deaf have been made clearly unwelcome at Mass. Maybe some of those who made them feel such are already in 'St James territory'.

I do not know the source of the sorrow of the old man in Van Gogh's painting, which expresses  very painful isolation. But isolation is what many profoundly deaf persons feel, especially if they are seen as 'dumb' in the modern sense. And what must deaf persons feel if some don't even want to welcome them at the celebration of Holy Mass, our most important act of worship as Catholic Christians to our loving Father?

As in so many of the healing stories in the Gospel, we see Jesus giving his full attention to the person in need. We see him engaging physically with that person, using his very spittle in the act of enabling the man to hear and to speak clearly.

Again, as in so many of the healing stories, Jesus is bringing someone back into the circle. The man's deafness and speech impediment, the latter a direct result of the former, isolated him to a large degree from his own family and community. Now he was fully part of it again.

I remember seeing the movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestial with a young friend, Glenn, who is profoundly, though not totally deaf, due to Usher's Syndrome, which also affects his sight. At the time he was about the same age as Elliott, the boy in the clip above. I watched the movie through Glenn's eyes, with a deeper appreciation of what is involved when a profoundly deaf person and a hearing person are trying to communicate. It can be very hard work, but rewarding.

Twenty-five years ago I saw something very beautiful at the Home of Joy in Tayuman, Tondo, Manila, a home for children run by the Missionaries of Charity. I was looking for a particular girl who was profoundly deaf. I'll call her Maria. I found her playing with a group of other girls, all of them using Sign Language. But only Maria was deaf. Without being aware of it, she had invited her friends into her world of silence - and they, without being aware of it, had invited her into their world of sound. All were equal.

A very important detail in the gospel is that not only did the deaf man's friends bring him to Jesus but they begged him to lay his hand on him.

Many churches in the western world have what is called a 'loop system' whereby those who are hard of hearing and use hearing aids can participate fully in Mass and other services. Being hard of hearing is something that very often comes with growing old, and I am experiencing that myself now - I've been using hearing aids since last January - but it is a very different reality from profound deafness, especially if that deafness has been since birth or early childhood.

Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God; my soul is thirsting for God, the living God (Cf. Psalm 41 [42]:2-3). These are the words of the Communion Antiphon from the Old Testament in today's Mass. The soul of a profoundly deaf person yearns for the living God just as much as the soul of a hearing person. But do we, the majority who are hearing, really allow/enable the Deaf to slake that thirst by enabling them to participate fully in the Holy Mass?

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,
Like the deer that yearns for running streams,
ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus:
so my soul is yearning for you, my God;
sitivit anima mea ad Deum fortem vivum.
my soul is thirsting for God, the living God.

Palestrina's setting is of the lines in bold above. The current Missale Romanum (Roman Missal) uses the New Vulgate Latin translation and the first line reads 'Quemadmodum desiderat cervus' instead of 'Sicut cervus desiderat'.

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