Signs of the Spirit: App teaches blessings, how to pray in ASL

By Carol Glatz

Catholic News Service

11/10/2017

Editor’s note: this article was updated with NTC staff reporting.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Sister Kathleen Schipani found out she was usually the very first person to teach deaf children to pray, she decided there had to be an app to fix that.

Learning to pray usually happens in the family, when a parent or relative recites the words for grace before meals, asks for blessings or requests guidance or protection, the Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary told Catholic News Service in Rome.

But when a child is born deaf into a hearing family, those kids shouldn't have to miss out on learning Catholic prayers or religious terms as they learn American Sign Language, she said Oct. 20.

Sister Schipani, who is director of the office for persons with disabilities and the deaf apostolate at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was in Rome as part of a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. The gathering Oct. 20-22 was dedicated to sharing best practices in engaging and catechizing persons living with disabilities.

The app is an initiative of the Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. (CNS photo/Deaf Apostolate of Archdiocese of Philadelphia) 

Lots of apps exist for learning ASL, she said, but there is nothing dedicated to religious terms, daily devotions, or prayers of blessing, love, thanks, and praise. The app meant to fill that gap is called "Religious Signs for Families" and is available from the iTunes App Store and Google Play.

According to Connie Martin, coordinator of deaf ministry for the Diocese of Fort Worth, the app will be particularly helpful for two audiences: ASL students learning to interpret in religious settings and hearing families of deaf children.

"The locus of learning your faith starts in the family, so this app is really to provide families with the ability" to foster prayer in the home and bond with each other and with God as they pray in ASL, Sister Schipani said. It also will help teachers who want to teach elementary school students how to pray using sign language.

"Deaf people have deep experiences of prayer," she said, particularly because it involves praying with "their whole body" with signing and visualization.

"Deaf people have never heard the language that we speak so they are not hearing the little voice in their head like we are," she said. Instead some people say they pray visually with beautiful imagery or with seeing hands signing in their head.

While sacred music does not have the same ability to draw deaf individuals to prayer, sacred or beautiful art does, she said.

Sister Kathleen Schipani, director of the Office for Persons with Disabilities and the Deaf Apostolate at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is pictured during an interview in Rome Oct. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Sister Schipani said the beautiful thing about sign language is the signs are often "iconic," reflecting what the thing is and, therefore, they can convey the theology behind the concept.

For example, she said, the sign for "heaven" in the Jewish faith is moving both hands in a way that suggests a semi-circular dome — the heavens — overhead.

In the Christian faith, she said, the sign conveys the canopy of heaven, but with the other hand going through and up, "because we believe that Jesus, our savior, has come and we're saved so we can have the possibility of entering heaven."

"A lot of deaf people have not been catechized because there was no one to sign to them, and that really is what the sad thing is — when there is no opportunity for deaf people to know religious language and have an experience of someone teaching them," she said.

The Diocese of Fort Worth uses a network of about a dozen interpreters to make Masses, Rosaries, funerals, Baptisms, and other church events accessible to deaf individuals. The deaf community numbers about 140 families in the diocese and holds a monthly Mass both in sign and voice.

Martin said that the deaf community Mass exemplifies that “everyone is welcome” in the Catholic Church.

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Editor's Note: The app has captions and voiceover in English and Spanish. More information can be found at http://deafcatholicphilly.org/religious-sign-app/.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Sister Kathleen Schipani found out she was usually the very first person to teach deaf children to pray, she decided there had to be an app to fix that.

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