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LITURGY Q & A: Sign Language by a Celebrant

Validity of Such a Mass Is Questioned

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: There is a video at of a deaf priest celebrating Mass entirely in sign language. In particular, he does not speak the words of the consecration (though, throughout, the texts of the missal are being read by a woman, in parallel with the signing). Is this proper? Could it be possibly invalid? A proper way to deal with a deaf congregation would be for the priest to be speaking the words of the Mass aloud and someone repeating them in sign language for the congregation. I do not know sign language, but I suspect that what is actually signed is — at best — a paraphrase of the words of the Mass, and possibly, partly, a distortion thereof. Assuming it is a paraphrase — and assuming the procedure is licit in the first place — I should think the same criteria would apply to this celebration as would apply to celebrating aloud but with continuous paraphrasing of the texts of the missal. – D.S., Calgary, Alberta

 A: First of all, we must clarify that our reader’s question does not involve the legitimacy of the use of sign language at a regular Mass. This is now thankfully quite common in parishes, albeit not common enough.

 Nor does it involve a priest simultaneously speaking and using sign language while celebrating.

 It regards the narrow question of the validity of the consecration in which a priest, especially one who is bereft of speech, uses only sign language throughout the celebration and does not vocally pronounce the words of consecration.

 With respect to the legitimacy of using sign language during the liturgy, we have the following official response to a question from the Holy See issued in Notitiae 2 (1966): 30-31 no. 95:

 “5. Whether the language that is called « gestural » (sign-language) can be employed in the celebration of the liturgy for the deaf?

 “In the affirmative. For it is the only system by which the deaf can truly actively participate in the sacred liturgy. As a matter of fact, to certain Conferences of Bishops that asked, the Most Blessed Father recently (14 Dec. 1965) kindly granted that the language that is called « gestural » can be employed in the celebration of the liturgy for the deaf, whenever a pastoral reason suggests it, in all the parts which are said in the vernacular language. The celebration can be ordered like this:

 “1. The readings are conveyed to the congregation through signs.

 “2. With respect to participation in the other parts which regard the people:

 “a) what is pronounced by the celebrant alone, he himself at the same time pronounces the words and likewise conveys them by gestures; the people respond with gestures;

 “b) in the parts which are to be said together by the celebrant and the people, e.g., the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus-Benedictus, the Agnus Dei, etc., the faithful follow the signs of the celebrant through gestures.”

 However, it does not answer our reader’s precise question regarding validity, and, although there have been some good theological reflections on this topic and some serious canonical studies, I have been unable to find a definitive official declaration that would close the debate.

 Renowned canonist Dr. Edward Peters has published several studies on this topic and proposes a positive conclusion with respect to the sacramental validity of sign language. There are other theological studies which reach similar conclusions from the dogmatic standpoint. Unfortunately, most of these studies do not appear to be available online.

 At the same time, I concur with the conclusion as to the validity of sign language alone when the priest lacks speech.

 First of all, it is a fact that deaf priests have been ordained since 1977, some of whom are also bereft of speech. From the point of view of sacramental theology, it would be inconceivable for the Church to permit the ordination of a priest if there were doubts that he could celebrate a valid Mass or other sacrament.

 A second argument stems from the nature of sign language as a true language. Although obviously connected to the language of the country where the person lives, sign language is not just a paraphrase of the local spoken tongue but a true language with its own grammar, structure, and syntax. Many thousands of people use it as their ordinary means of communication and are capable of expressing the full range of human intercourse.

 It is true that traditional sacramental theology required vocalization for the sacramental form. This was one reason why deafness, along with many other physical impairments, was considered as an impediment to ordination. This would be the position found in most theological manuals.

 However, the closest we can come to an official pronouncement that vocalization is essential to validity is an assertion of Pope Pius XII who, with remarkable foresight, affirms the necessity for a concelebrant to speak the words of consecration.

 However, in this case, the Pope was asserting the invalidity of the “verbum mentis,” the simple mental or interior repetition of the sacramental form with no exterior sign. Thus a celebration by a priest who does not open his mouth but only reads interiorly the prayers would be invalid.

 This is not the case of the use of sign language which is not “verbum mentis.” In this case, the deaf priest is truly pronouncing the words of consecration, even though he is using visible and not audible words.

 Even though the use of sign language is approved, there is still no official translation of the Latin Missal into sign language. Since sign language is such a recent phenomenon in the liturgy it will probably require some years to develop some of the more technical vocabulary and incorporate it into worship. A formal missal is probably even further away as there is not yet a fully standardized method for writing sign language, even if such a book is deemed necessary at all.

 Since sign language is a different language it cannot be compared to the situation of a priest who commits the abuse of paraphrasing the official prayers. A possible, albeit admittedly unsatisfactory, analogy for simultaneous speaking and signing would be the situation of observing a papal Mass on television in which the commentator reads the prayers from the English missal while the Holy Father is celebrating in Italian.

 The Mass on the video was celebrated with reverence and dignity. It was authorized by the diocese and deaf people made up a substantial part of the small congregation. The woman reading the texts and interpreting the homily was for the benefit of those present who did not understand sign language, and she was as unobtrusive as circumstances allowed.

 For most parishes, the solution will continue to be a gestural interpretation of the spoken word.

 However, I would say that offering the opportunity to a deaf congregation to worship together using their own language is a great blessing and a true aid to active participation in the liturgy.

 * * *

 Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

About Fr. Edward McNamara

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