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Australian Catholic deaf ministry earns praise from a South African chaplain


Fr Mark James with Geoff Scott (deaf) who teaches art at Emmanuel Centre. Photo: Theresia Titus.

By Theresia Titus

A South African priest and Chaplain to those who are deaf and hard of hearing in Swaziland, Africa, has last week told The eRecord of how impressed he is by the work of the Australian Bishops to support people with disability.

Father Mark James OP says that awareness is growing in South Africa but that Australia is further advanced than South Africa.

“I am sure that is due to pioneering work of many chaplains,” Fr James said.

“I see these dedicated workers. I am very impressed by the work that has been done here in Australia for people with disability.”

Fr James was visiting Australia to see his brother, but decided to also take the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the Church in Australia and take some ideas home for his chaplaincy.

He visited The Ephpheta Centre in Sydney and The Emmanuel Centre in Perth.

Both of these centres dedicate themselves to working with those who are deaf and hard of hearing or physically impaired.

Fr James was working in a parish at a city east of Johannesburg called Springs before he commenced his current position.

His work began when he started to learn sign language in 2006. His grandparents were also deaf.

“The deaf people themselves taught me. I used to go to somebody’s house on Thursday evenings before the Sunday Mass, and they taught me how to sign the Gospel, and I would do it very badly.

“They were very gentle, kind with me saying, ‘No Father you are doing very well, carry on!’ “ he laughed.

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Fr Mark James is discussing with Fr Paul Pitzen and Ms Barbara Harris from Emmanuel Centre. Photo: Theresia Titus.

Fr James told The eRecord it was Fr Cyril Axelrod and Fr John Turner who initiated ministry for those who are deaf and hard of hearing in South Africa.

Fr James went on to explain his work is primarily focussed on saying Mass for the deaf and assisting the deaf and hard of hearing community with gaining access to better employment.

“We are trying to build some sense of community,” Fr James said.

“We are trying to see how we can serve and minister to the deaf through the country, making sure that every diocese has a deaf ministry or somebody who can attend to the needs of deaf and disabled people.”

To Fr James his full-time calling to serve those who are deaf and hard of hearing came from the deaf people themselves in South Africa and the current environment in which they cope.

“Once I got involved, I got so caught up in this work, so inspired by the deaf community,’ he said.


Fr Mark James laughed when he saw Scott (deaf) from Emmanuel Centre ate wheatgrass raw. Photo: Theresia Titus.

When asked what the Church can do for disabled people, Fr James said it is a preposition problem.

“I think the main thing is not to do ‘for’ them but what the Church can do ‘with’ because empowerment is important,” he explained.

“People have gifts, talents, abilities [and] when they are given a platform to allow to shine, it’s amazing.

“Give people who are deaf and have disabilities space to show who they are, to appreciate the gifts they have, the talent they have and include them in the liturgy.”

He also said that he found his experience of ministering to the deaf and hard of hearing is humbling.

“We discover something different about our humanity when we recognise the way deaf people are in the world,” he said.

“I discovered the richness in deaf people that humbles me as a hearing person.

“I don’t need to do anything for them. All I need is to do is unlock the power already existed, and if we can do that, things that we have never imagine possible can happen.”