April 15, 2012

The Priest Who Translates the Gospel Into Sign Language

Once a year, during the Agape Vespers on Pascha, Archimandrite John Karamouzis exits the Holy Altar through the Royal Gate and gives the Gospel in sign language so the deaf could understand the text. Papa-John, as he is known, has spent the last few years ministering to the deaf and hard of hearing and is only one of four priests in Greece that knows sign language.

"My involvement began 11 years ago when the mother of a deaf child approached me and asked me to deal with him because he had finished high school for the deaf, and upon his return home to Halkida he could not communicate with anyone who could hear. I thought this was a message from God to deal with deaf people and to give them all my interest and energy," said Fr. John to Sunday Democracy.

For Fr. John this opened a new path in life and he decided to deal with this not only pastorally but also scientifically.


Fr. John studied Greek sign language, which he knows in the capacity of teaching and interpretation, while he did his thesis on the pastoral care of the deaf at Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki. He is a preacher of the Holy Metropolis of Halkida and he cooperates with Inter-Christian relations for the Holy Synod. "The last Sunday of every month at All Saints parish in Kallithea the Divine Liturgy is celebrated with simultaneous interpretation in sign language from the laity. Deaf come from all parts of Athens in this important initiative," says Father John, and adds: "At the same time in several Metropolis' there are liturgical gatherings and there are revealed the degree of needs, perhaps not at the level we wanted, but even so it's a significant offering."

Approaching the deaf is an extremely difficult task. You need expertise, patience and unconditional love. "It is necessary for more to learn sign language," says Father John, adding: "It could be done today to 'translate' the entire Divine Liturgy in sign language by priests, because science gives us the 'weapons'. The deaf community is not a disabled people, but a 'cultural minority' according to the latest medical opinions. This minority has its own language, and we must learn to approach her. Probably it will take many years to do this, but its worth a try."

A Closed Community

The deaf community is very closed and guarded. "When approaching a deaf person one should know how to deal with them to become acceptable. For example, if a deaf person has turned his attention somewhere and one who hears comes and hits them on the back, the deaf considers it hostile and not friendly energy. These 'codes' you ought to know and this is done only when socializing with them," says Father John. The priest is to understand the particular temperament of the deaf. These are people socially isolated and suspicious. They also have a fear of not being able to communicate and be disappointed.

Father John scientifically studied all this data to implement, but also to teach other priests. Prejudices are indeed many. "Previously there were scientists who said that sign language should not be used because it is mimetic. In France in the 60's to prevent deaf people from using their hands, they tied them to focus on 'reading' of the lips. This scientifically collapsed as inhuman. Then they said sign language degrades them mentally. Just in 2000 was sign language officially recognized," says Fr John.

In Greece, the first clergyman who was deaf and dedicated to them was the late Metropolitan of Thebes Nicodemos, who learned sign language and communicated with them from the 50's, and gave part of his personal fortune to buy the first building of the club where he worked pastorally with the deaf.

The most difficult moment for Papa John is confession. "Every man has his own emotions and the need to express it in such a way as to show repentance," he says, adding: "The pastor who hears the confession must be fluent in sign language, emotionally to be present and know that the reactions of the deaf may be more intense because they can not express in words what they have in them".

Unknown sin

"The pastor needs to know all aspects of the life of a deaf person. The most important of all is that the deaf do not have the perceptions of being deaf and are more prone to commit sin, because no one explained what is sin and what is not. The clergyman is often at odds with an entire worldview of the deaf. For example, I have confessions by deaf people who do not consider abortion a sin because no one had said it to them. When I explained it was, it was very difficult to convince them. I felt the difficulty to convince a man that what all his life he did, thinking he is right, is in fact a sin and must be changed. Basically when you come in contact with a deaf person who has no special relationship with the Church it is like facing a small child whom you must teach."


"Very much effort and dedication is needed for deaf ministry," says the Archimandrite. For nine years in the Halkis Metropolis they offer sign language courses. The course lasts two years and in each cycle about 30 people who hear learn how to communicate with the deaf. One has also been ordained a Reader by the Metropolitan Demetrios Bouleros of Halkis, who is the first deaf person placed in a position in the Church of Greece.

Every Sunday Father John gathers all deaf people in the region and discusses with them their problems. Mostly, however, he is always ready to help a deaf person with transactions with the State, and services in emergency situations. "There are cases where a deaf person gets sick and is taken to the hospital. There he can not explain what he suffers, or learn what tests and what treatment the doctors give for him to do. You understand that he is in panic. Think of someone who should be operated on and does not know whether or not they are in danger. In these cases, I hasten to restore the voice and hearing, and especially offer psychological support," said Father John.

They feel anger at God

Father John is making two important scientific investigations that are underway. In the first study whether religiosity affects deaf people and sociability. With special questionnaires he studied whether deafness affects their faith and relationship with God. The results so far show that the deaf community is largely away from Christ because most grew up in families that had not spoken on the subject, because the parents did not know sign language. About 99% of deaf people are born into families that hear and are deaf to adulthood and do not communicate with people around. "Many say they feel anger at God because of their problem. Many say that God is not interested and others (fewer) say they believe because they hope that God will heal them. Anyway, as a Church we need to see these findings carefully to better understand the problem," concludes Father John.

The second survey is of a sample of about 500 people studying those who hear and their religious views on the subject to show the treatment of deaf people who have a spiritual background. Here, the first results are concerning, largely because there seems to be indifference, while many say they would consider it a punishment of God to bring into the world a deaf child. "Many who are cosidered believers do not consider a deaf child as a blessing from God and that's frustrating," says Fr John.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos