Pope Vatican

How Pope Francis spoke to the deaf

David Lozada
How Pope Francis spoke to the deaf
Sign language interpreters for the deaf played a crucial role in telling the world of Pope Francis' message for the young, the old, and those with disabilities

MANILA, Philippines – When Pope Francis visited the Philippines from January 15 to 19, he delivered strong, inspiring messages to Filipino Catholics. The charismatic pope made sure his messages were heard loud and clear, even to those who could not speak or hear. 

At the Pope’s most important events, papal visit organizers and television stations made sure sign language interpreters were available for the deaf.

“The pope’s visit created a lot of ‘noise’ in the Filipino deaf community, especially when they saw the sign language interpreters in most, if not all, television networks,” said Naty Natividad, one of the interpreters assigned to GMA-7.

Natividad, who works for the De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde (DLS-CSB) Deaf Life Skills Development Program, said interpreting for the deaf is as important as translating different languages into English.

“What if monsignor Mark Miles did not understand the pope and did not relay everything? What if there was no voice over translation for the Latin part of the mass? Would the pope’s message, expressed from his heart in his spontaneity, be as inspiring and moving had it not been translated to English,” she said.

Natividad added: “If the interpreter of the pope was not present, then hearing people would feel what deaf people experience every day – left out, not knowing what’s going on, always at a loss, and not understanding.”

‘Tell the world of his love’

GOD'S MESSAGE. A deaf interpreter relays Pope Francis' message to deaf people during the pontiff's encounter with families in the MOA Arena. Photo from Rappler

For Teresa Buenaventura, also a faculty member of DLS-CSB School of Deaf Education, interpreting God’s message to the deaf is a ministry. 

“It was very challenging, inspiring, and a deeply spiritual experience not only for me but I guess to the other interpreters as well. The difficult part is to be deeply engaged in the message of the pope since part of our Code of Ethics is not to be emotionally involved,” the 52-year-old said.

Pope Francis’ homily in Tacloban was particularly a challenge for Buenaventura, as she was carried away with the pope’s message to the Typhoon Yolanda survivors.

“How could one not be emotionally affected when the pope started his homily in Tacloban? I was on the brink of tears but I had to control my emotions at that instance,” she added. 

To the people in silence

One of Pope Francis’ most touching message for the interpreters was about silence. During his homily in Tacloban, the raincoat-clad pope called for silence for the victims and survivors of the super typhoon. (READ: The silence of Pope Francis

In a press conference after the pope’s Tacloban visit, Manila Archbishop Antonio Luis Cardinal Tagle said the pope was “reduced to silence” after hearing the stories of the survivors.

This, according to Natividad, is not only a spiritual practice but a call to greater understanding of deaf people. 

“Most hearing people or even television networks do not really understand the importance of giving access to information for the deaf through the use of sign language… For most people, a small box at the corner of their television set is bothersome,” Natividad added.

Another touching act by the pope was during his encounter with a deaf family in the MOA Arena. Pope Francis learned how to say “I love you” in sign language after the family gave their speech.

Natividad said the papal visit also brought to surface people’s ignorance and general apathy toward the deaf community. One television network removed the sign language interpreter picture inset just because there was a change in segment programming, while continuously airing the pope’s speech. 

“This was being insensitive to the rights of the deaf to have access and inclusion. The interpreters and the team could not do anything at that point but there were lessons learned,” she explained. 

After the papal visit, what’s next?

In spite of the challenges, Buenaventura said the papal visit was a big step towards promoting deaf awareness in the country.

Pope Francis interacts thru a sign language to  Filipino parents with disabilities during a meeting with families at the MOA Arena. Photo by Francis Malasig/EPA

“All in all, I think it turned out very well, deaf students were texting and expressing their reactions in social media. I think that is a relatively good gauge in this technology-inspired world we live in,” she explained.

She added: “It was an honor and a blessing to serve in the masses of the pope as an interpreter. It was our responsibility to deepen our deaf brothers and sisters’ awareness about the papal visit.” 

For Natividad, however, more has to be done to raise awareness on the rights of deaf people, especially for Philippine media. 

“It is my hope that the television networks will look beyond the papal visit, television ratings and competitive gain, and see the widow in putting insets in their news and TV programs. Not just for mercy to deaf people but because it’s their right to be informed, to have access, and to be included,” she concluded. – Rappler.com

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