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Fully connected to the Mass

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The Mass is a spiritual and sensory event where sight, smell, taste, touch and hearing combine to make the liturgy the centerpiece of our faith. If one of the five senses is missing or impaired, it can affect the experience. Some senses have a more profound experiential impact than others - hearing is one.

Deafness is a condition that is timeless, and one that is mentioned in the Bible. The Gospel of Mark describes Jesus curing a deaf man.

"He took him off by himself away from the crowd. He put his finger into the man's ears and, spitting, touched his tongue; then He looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him, 'Ephphatha' (that is, 'Be opened'). And (immediately) the man's ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly " (Mk 7:33-35).

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, approximately 17 percent of American adults suffer some degree of hearing loss. Much of the deafness is age-related. For children, about 2 or 3 out of 1,000 are born deaf.

Arlington diocesan parishes have provided services to the hearing impaired for years, mostly American Sign Language (ASL). There are signed Masses at several diocesan parishes, including Holy Spirit in Annandale, Good Shepherd in Alexandria, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Lake Ridge and Christ the Redeemer in Sterling.

Donna Gilbertson has been deaf since she was a year old, the result of a measles infection.

Her husband, Allan, said that the term "hear" has no real meaning for his wife. He said she's never been able to hear. She can perceive some sounds, but it is not intelligible speech.

She was born Catholic, but moved away from the faith, only to return about two years ago.

She started going to Mass again, joining St. Joseph Church in Herndon, but couldn't understand the homily or announcements. Signed Masses didn't help because she does not understand ASL. In fact, she said that only 10 percent of deaf people can communicate with ASL.

"You need to be able to connect to the Mass," she said. "You need to be able to participate and engage and you need to witness it, and I had a hard time with that because I would just sit there."

Donna Linton is a court reporter and acquaintance of Gilbertson who has been providing Computer Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services to Gilbertson for about 10 years. Linton started when Gilbertson was taking courses at Northern Virginia Community College and continued to help her with teacher-parent meetings for her children in school.

Linton said that they would see each other occasionally and exchange Christmas cards, but that was the extent of their relationship.

This past April, Gilbertson thought perhaps Linton could help her more fully experience the Mass. She asked Linton, a parishioner of St. Theresa Church in Ashburn, to be her personal CART provider for Mass. Linton accepted.

They asked Father Richard M. Guest, pastor of St. Theresa Church in Ashburn, if Linton could bring her equipment (stenograph computer and laptop) to Mass. Father Guest wanted to make sure the equipment was nonintrusive. He agreed, and gave them an area in the front, near the right side of the sanctuary. Gilbertson and her family are active at St. Joseph Church, but they go to Sunday Mass at St. Theresa.

It's a one-on-one arrangement, with Linton typing the priest's sermon as it's delivered, and Gilbertson reading the words from a laptop screen. Linton also will type announcements like deaths and sicknesses. She'll add descriptors to the transcribed homilies like (laughter) to help give Gilbertson as much of the impact of the homily as possible.

Gilbertson said that the service Linton provides is better than receiving a copy of the sermon beforehand, mostly because many priests speak from notes, not a transcript of the homily.

"It's more connecting," said Gilbertson. "The written homilies are usually just guidelines."

Other congregants are curious, but respectful, of the two women sitting in the front of church - one typing as the other reads.

Linton said the arrangement benefits them both.

"I'm getting a lot out the Mass personally," she said.

Gilbertson and Linton said they are not aware of

other dioceses in the region offering this kind of service. They believe that few, if any, are offered anywhere in the country. Both women would like to see this service expanded, but for now they are content for this relationship to make the holy sacrifice of the Mass more meaningful for both.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014