WASHINGTON (CNS) — Father Min Seo Park, one of fewer than two dozen deaf priests worldwide, thinks deafness is hardly a disability and is working to help others realize that as well.
Deaf since an illness at age 2, the new chaplain of St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, Maryland, is hoping to convey the idea that deafness be treated as a culture.
Since returning to the United States from his native Seoul, South Korea, in late January, Father Park, 52, has taken up three ministries. In addition to serving St. Francis of Assisi, the priest also is the chaplain to the Catholic community at Gallaudet University and provides pastoral ministry to the Archdiocese of Washington’s deaf population overall.
The challenges seem well within the capabilities of a priest who is fluent in four languages: Korean Sign Language and American Sign Language, or ASL, as well as written Korean and English.
Speaking with the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, with sign language interpretation assistance of Mary O’Meara, executive director of the archdiocese’s Department of Special Needs Ministries, he told his story of growing up deaf, his path to priesthood and his eventual return to the nation’s capital.
He arrived in the U.S. the first time in 1994 to study ASL and English at Gallaudet University’s English Language Institute, before beginning his undergraduate degree there a year later. Gallaudet is the only higher education institution in the world where all students live and learn in ASL and English.
In South Korea, he grew up attending schools for the deaf. Not raised a Catholic, he went with schoolmates to Protestant churches with signing ministers at first.
Eventually, a deaf Catholic art teacher introduced him to a Catholic parish, where he joined a Bible study with other deaf people. He became a Catholic at age 17. With few priests in Korea who used sign language, however, he and other deaf Catholics found practicing the faith frustrating.
“Deaf Catholics and I did not understand clearly what the priests said,” he explained. “Some of them were not happy and eventually converted to Protestant churches.”
That opened his path to a vocation.
“When I was praying alone in front of Jesus Christ on the cross at the chapel, I asked him if he could send a signing priest for the deaf,” Father Park said. “However, suddenly I felt that Jesus said to me, ‘Why not, you …?’ I said, ‘Me?’ That is how I began to consider the priestly vocation.”
A hearing priest who knew sign language helped him connect with Dominican Father Thomas Coughlin, the first deaf priest ordained in the U.S, who pointed him to Gallaudet.
After graduating in 1999 after studying math and philosophy, he was encouraged by Father Coughlin to study theology at St. John’s Seminary in New York.
At first he had to read each lecture as it was being transcribed and he struggled to keep up with classwork. Soon afterward, the seminary provided sign language interpretation, making it easier to stay on track. He completed his master of divinity degree in 2004 and returned to Seoul.
There, he began theology studies for the Archdiocese of Seoul and was ordained to the priesthood in 2007. He said that as he celebrated his first signed Mass after ordination, he saw a congregation of joyful people.
“Some deaf people, who were poor at Korean writing and could not communicate with non-signing hearing priests, had not confessed to priests for many years, like 20 years,” he said. With him, “they felt confident and comfortable to confess to me in sign language. I was happy that I forgave their sins through the sacrament of confession.
“Deaf people witnessed my priesthood ordination and realized that deaf people were children of God as well. They felt joyful and happy to listen to the word of God, the Gospel from me, a deaf priest,” he said.
Over the next 14 years Father Park built up the Seoul deaf Catholic community, giving them their first priest who is what is referred to as culturally deaf.
Lana Portolano, author of “Be Opened!: The Catholic Church and Deaf Culture,” explained in an email exchange that Father Park is one of fewer than two dozen Catholic priests worldwide who use sign language as their primary form of communication. Nine of them are in the U.S.
Most deaf Catholic communities experience Mass with a sign language interpreter or sometimes with a hearing priest who can celebrate using sign. This can pose problems with hearing confession, for instance. And an interpreter is typically at one side of the room, meaning that a deaf person who is following the signing cannot simultaneously watch the actions of the priest at the altar.
As Father Park discovered when celebrating Mass in Seoul, even with a signing priest, a crowded church itself can be an obstacle to deaf participants.
With a congregation of 200 people in a small space, “I had to stand on a chair so the people in back could see me sign,” he said. That led him to lead a campaign to get the entire Seoul Catholic community to support buying land and building a dedicated church for the deaf population. He visited 150 parishes, explaining the need. Construction was completed in 2019.
That was about the time Father Park visited the U.S. and O’Meara began discussing with him the possibility of joining the Washington Archdiocese. It took two years to obtain the necessary visa for Father Park, she said.
Father Park said he is looking forward to being in a country where there are other deaf priests like himself.
“They all go on a retreat together in September,” he said, his eyes brightening as he signed. “I’m very excited to join them.”