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Part of the mass involves the priest lifting up the Eucharist and saying the following aloud:

Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

In the event that the priest is saying the mass using English sign language (as opposed to saying it in a verbal language and having an interpreter repeating his words in sign language), what does he do? He can't both hold up the Eucharist and say the words with his hands. Does he lift up the Eucharist, set it down, and then say those words? Does he do the opposite? Is there some other way this situation is to be handled?

(I'm guessing that there's an answer somewhere in canon law, since surely someone has run into this situation).

  • A Mass in sign language? – Sola Gratia Apr 8 at 19:53
  • @SolaGratia Apparently it's a thing. – Nathaniel Apr 8 at 19:55
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    Woah, comments for improving the question, not pointing out liturgical abuses. – Peter Turner Apr 8 at 20:59
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Yes, a priest can give a mass in American Sign Language (ASL)

Fr. Edward McNamara wrote an extensive article for the organization ZENIT about the validity of sign language at mass, specifically using sign language during the consecration and not vocally pronouncing the words.

Sign language is certainly permitted for the liturgy

First, Fr. McNamara first answers the general question of whether or not sign language can be used in liturgy, and he cites Notitiae, the official magazine of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

  1. 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.

Notitiae 2 (1966): 30-31 no. 95

There does not appear to be an official statement explicitly addressing validity during consecration, but consensus among canonists is that it is valid

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.

The Dr. Edward Peters he mentions maintains "A Bibliography of Deaf Catholic Sources and Studies", which include some of his own works that I believe Fr. McNamara is referencing.

What other evidence is there that this is permitted?

Fr. McNamara states that dioceses in the United States have dedicated Deaf Ministries that celebrate mass in American Sign Language, and defers to their authority in being able to do so. Beyond that, he gives several reasons that he concurs with Dr. Edward Peters' opinion:

Deaf priests have been ordained since 1977, and some of them are unable to verbally speak

I personally reached out to the coordinator of the Deaf Ministry in the Archdiocese of Baltimore about this question, and he cited this point as one of the pieces of evidence that it was valid:

For your information, there are more than 10 Deaf men who have been ordained priests. In fact, one was ordained by St. John Paul II himself. I am not a canon lawyer and cannot address all of the fine details related to canon law. However, I think we would have to assume that priests would not be ordained if it was known that they would be unable to celebrate the Mass.

Indeed, if the Pope himself has ordained a deaf priest, it's hard to argue that it's invalid to do so.

Various forms of sign language are considered true languagess

This argument declares that sign language is essentially a vernacular language. Fr. McNamara explains:

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.

Assertions against giving the mass nonverbally appear to be exhortations against “verbum mentis”

Expanding on this point, Fr. McNamara writes:

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.

There is no official translation of the Latin Missal into sign language

Due to sign language being a relatively recent invention, and there not being a standardized way to write it down in print, an official translation has not been developed. However, he contrasts using unofficial translations with a priest paraphrasing prayers (something that is forbidden).

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.

So how does the priest raise lift up the Eucharist while performing the mass in sign language?

In this video of an ASL mass, the priest holds up the Eucharist and says the words one-handed if able to.

American Sign Language mass with one priest

When needing to hold both the Body and Blood, it appears that he says the the words before elevating it (you will notice that he changes the page of the liturgy book afterwards).

It seems like there is an alternative method if there is more than one priest. This mass (described in a news article here) involved the celebrant (i.e. primary priest) signing the words while the other priest elevated the Body and Blood.

American Sign Language mass with two priests

I imagine that most other sign language masses are performed in this way, although given how these are relatively new, I imagine that this might be formally clarified in the future.

  • I have a rudimentary understanding of ASL, and the video of the masses were not captioned, so if someone who is fluent in the language notices that I misunderstood what was being said, please correct me. – Thunderforge May 9 at 23:13
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    Very well researched answer! I didn't think there is so much research and practice in the US. – K-HB May 10 at 9:42
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    You say there is no official translation of the Missal into sign language. So how can a priest licitly and validly say Mass in ASL? Priests have to obey liturgical law. – Geremia Jun 14 at 5:30
  • @Geremia Sounds like a good question to ask on this site. I imagine this has already been considered by the Catholic Church with spoken languages that are niche, so it's not a unique problem for sign language. – Thunderforge Jun 14 at 18:53
  • This answer is still subject to the approval of Rome. Without that it is still a theological theory. – Ken Graham Sep 7 at 0:22
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The topic of this question seems to be in ongoing research and developement. I think there won't be a comprehensive answer. My answer relies on the theological doctoral thesis of Christiane Martin at the Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule Vallendar (Philosophical and Theological University of the Pallottines in Vallendar, Germany)¹. She researched on the pastoral care for the deaf and hearing impaired in Germany².

In 1970 the German Episcopal Conference and the Apostolic See approve a German form of the Mass for deaf children. Its text in an easy language are spoken aloud by the priest and the deafs. To understand the priest, the deafs read his lips. In 1980 similar forms for the other sacraments were approved ad experimentum by the German Bishops and Rome.

Back than the common opinion was, that deafs should learn to speak normal and sign language would be the worse alternative (see Milan Conference 1880). In the next years this undestanding of language for deafs changed and today sign language stands as an own langauge and mothertongue of (a part of) the deaf.

Today there are various forms of mass in the congregations of deafs in Germany. Some use oral language and a translator, some oral language and some kind of sign language (there is more than one) parallel, some use only sign language. In the latter case the symbolic signs (e.g. cross over bread and wine) are done before the word-signs. The approved forms are barely used in mass, but for the other sacraments. The concrete forms also heavily depend on the local conditions, esp. weather hearing people attend the service.

In her report Christiane Martin never questions weather a sign-only-mass is valid. There seems to be no relevant discussion about this. It is clear for everyone that the used forms of the mass are not approved and thus illegal. They claim it is legit based on two arguments. First Sacrosanctum Consilium speaks about active participation and that the liturgy is to be adapt to the abilities of the people. Second they understand the sign languages as a languages in their own right, so they need translations of the ordo like every other language.

This is the opinion of a researcher in pastoral theology (not dogmatic) in (traditional liberal) Germany. I don't know but suppose there are theologicans that understand sign language as a significant other thing than oral language and claim there could be no valid sacrament purley through signs. I'm curious on the developements in the next decades and centuries.


¹ Christiane Martin: "Im Himmel können alle gebärden!" Liturgie und Pastoral mit Gehörlosen. Verlag Pustet. Regensburg 2009

² The question asks about American Sign Language, but I think it is OK to answer to the broader question.

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Can a priest do a Mass uniquely in American Sign Language (ASL)?

The short answer is no.

ASL is not a spoken language. 👈

A priest must pronounce the words of consecration in imitation of Our Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. An "ASL only Mass is not permitted. A priest must speak the words of consecration and perform the appropriate liturgical gestures while saying the Mass. Another priest could employ sign language at the Mass however.

The Prayers and Other Parts Pertaining to the Priest

  1. Among those things assigned to the Priest, the prime place is occupied by the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the high point of the whole celebration. Next are the orations, that is to say, the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. These prayers are addressed to God by the Priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ, in the name of the entire holy people and of all present.[43] Hence they are rightly called the “presidential prayers.”

  2. Likewise it is also for the Priest, in the exercise of his office of presiding over the gathered assembly, to offer certain explanations that are foreseen in the rite itself. Where this is laid down by the rubrics, the celebrant is permitted to adapt them somewhat so that they correspond to the capacity for understanding of those participating. However, the Priest should always take care to keep to the sense of the explanatory text given in the Missal and to express it in just a few words. It is also for the presiding Priest to regulate the Word of God and to impart the final blessing. He is permitted, furthermore, in a very few words, to give the faithful an introduction to the Mass of the day (after the initial Greeting and before the Penitential Act), to the Liturgy of the Word (before the readings), and to the Eucharistic Prayer (before the Preface), though never during the Eucharistic Prayer itself; he may also make concluding comments regarding the entire sacred action before the Dismissal.

  3. The nature of the “presidential” parts requires that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen to them attentively.[44] Therefore, while the Priest is pronouncing them, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent. - Chapter II: The Structure of the Mass, Its Elements, and Its Parts

Many years ago, it was quite common to see Monsignor Monroe using sign language at Mass before he was nominated Bishop of Kamloops. Monsignor Monroe would employ sign language at Mass, at a location that was visible to all. However he never used ASL when he himself was saying Mass.

There appears to be a "Planned Masses in American Sign Language (ASL)". However it should be noted that this Mass is in fact a concelebrated Mass and that the presider of the Mass is Archbishop Lori. This Mass in all respect is being spoken as any other Catholic Mass would be. What parts Fr. Mike Depcik is actually signing is not said.

Fr. Michael Depcik is scheduled to be here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore for Mass three times in 2019. He will be here on Sunday, March 31 in Urbana/Ijamsville. This will be on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Confessions will be available from 11:30 to noon and after Mass. Mass will be at noon and a pot luck social will follow at St. Ignatius Social Hall.

Fr. Mike will also be here on Sunday, May 19 at the Mission Helpers in Towson at 10 am. Archbishop Lori will celebrate this Mass with Fr. Mike concelebrating. A pot luck social will follow.

Fr. Mike will be here on Saturday, June 8, at 4 pm to celebrate Mass at the Country Church in Urbana. A pot luck social will follow at the St. Ignatius Social Hall. - Deaf Mass with Fr. Mike Depcik

  • Presumably there would be no problem with a priest doing his own ASL interpretation, essentially a mass simultaneously in ASL and a spoken language, leaving only the question of how he manages the ASL when it is required to be doing something with his hands. – DJClayworth Apr 15 at 18:54
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Yes, a priest can give a mass in ASL. For whatever restriction of words that must be said, he can also speak the necessary words. This is, the mass need not to be only in ASL, nor fully in two languages. It can be fully in ASL with some spoken words by the priest himself.

Some might argue that the priest could then not use his hands in special parts of the consecration. Yet, afaik, a consecration is not invalid if the priest does not do so. And if it might be, a con-celebrant might well do so in his stead.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Do you have sources to back this up? – Thunderforge Apr 11 at 13:03
  • @Thunderforge let me check. – luchonacho Apr 11 at 17:05
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The words of consecration must be spoken with the priest's larynx, not signed/gestured in a sign language. Such an "ASL Mass" (Deaf Mass with Fr. Mike Depcik) is certainly invalid, meaning that Christ is not present after the attempted consecration; they must be avoided.

The Council of Trent, Session 22, Doctrina de ss. Missae sacrificio, 17 September 1562 (cited in GIRM fn. 13) anathematizes those who think

Canon IX.— […] that the rite of the Roman Church, according to which a part of the canon and the words of consecration are pronounced in a low tone [submissa voce], is to be condemned; or, that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only [such as ASL]

It also says (Chapter V. On the solemn ceremonies of the Sacrifice of the Mass.) that

holy Mother Church instituted certain rites, to wit, that certain things be pronounced in the mass in a low [summissa], and others in a louder [elatiore], tone [voce].

This teaching was also taught by Pope Pius VI in his bull Auctorem Fidei condemning the heretical Council of Pistoia[DZ 1533]:

The proposition of the [heretical] synod [of Pistoia:] […] "[…] by expressing it [the liturgy] in the vernacular language, by uttering it in a loud voice"; […]—rash, offensive to pious ears, insulting to the Church, favorable to the charges of heretics against it.

How can someone using ASL pronounce something in a low/quiet voice (summissa voce) vs. a louder voice (elatiore voce)?

Also, mute/dumb priests are irregular, meaning they cannot execute their priestly office (due, in this case, to a bodily deformity or defectus corporis; cf. canonist Dom Augustine on can. 984).

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    Does the condemnation of saying "that the mass ought to be celebrated in the vulgar tongue only" still apply after Vatican II allowed masses to be said in languages other than Latin? If not, then I don't think that would be justification for not having an ASL mass in the modern day. – Thunderforge Apr 8 at 20:59
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    "It didn't say the Mass can be entirely in the vernacular." I think I'll have to ask a new question about that; I've never been to a mass that wasn't 100% in the local language, aside from the Kyrie. – Thunderforge Apr 8 at 21:24
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    All in all, gentlemen, this response is the correct answer. The words of consecration must be pronounced just like Our Lord did at the Last Supper. ASL is not a spoken language. However the ASL Mass that Geremia pointed out would be a valid Mass because it is a concelebrated Mass with Archbishop Lori presiding. Thus the words of consecration are truly pronounced. – Ken Graham Apr 10 at 12:10
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    I don't know of a mass only in ASL would be valid, but this answer shows nothing like that. Trent does not deal with this problem (there wasn't a sign language back than). Its teaching about 100% vernecular only says: We condemn them, who condemn the use of Latin. -> Latin (not the vernecular) can (not must) be used. The writing about low and louder tone is not a teaching, but an explanation on "Mother Church instituted certain rites". – K-HB Apr 10 at 19:10
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    As Wikipedia says "Unlike deaf sign languages, they [Monastic sign languages] are better understood as forms of symbolic gestural communication rather than languages." The oldest sign languages date only from the mid 18th century. Sign languages can be validly said to be "spoken", and "summissa" can also mean "restrained", so I'm sure it could apply to sign languages too. But the biggest problem to my mind is that this answer completely ignores VII and anything after it. – curiousdannii Apr 10 at 22:08

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