During Saturday Masses at Sacred Heart Church in Sauk Rapids, Susan Goodwin sits to one side of the ambo, simultaneously interpreting parts of the Mass for the deaf community, including the hymns, Scripture readings, homily and prayers.
“Interpreting the Mass is a big part of who I am, a natural match,” Susan said.
Simultaneous interpretation means Susan takes in every word and expresses it at the same time, blending interpretation and American Sign Language, which uses a different grammar than English. She strives for accuracy and balance, not word-for-word translation. The task requires significant thought, sensitivity and training, she explained.
“My job is not simply interpreting words but to physically express emotion, voice and intonation. If the speaker is loud and fast, my signs are bigger and faster; if the voice is peaceful, I make my signs smaller, slower, quieter, so the deaf pick up those nuances. That is part of what interpreters strive for.
“With the words ‘Lord, hear our prayer,’ I don’t point to my ears because the deaf community aren’t hearing. Instead, I might sign closer to my eyes and express ‘God, pay attention to our prayer.’”
Access beforehand to the Mass’s prayers and hymns helps Susan determine the mood of the Mass. She reads the Scripture to get a gist of what the priest might say. For greater fluidity during the Mass, she chooses or creates a bank of vocabulary and concepts to apply.
“For a concept I might use a series of signs,” Susan said. “When Moses opens a scroll and proclaims, I physically ‘open a scroll’ as if that’s what I’m reading from. I might visually show Jesus boarding a boat on the Sea of Galilee with people on shore listening. When Jesus and his disciples go from Jerusalem to Jericho, because Jericho is north of Jerusalem, I sign Jerusalem lower down and Jericho close to my head.”
Susan interprets at the first, third and fifth Saturday Masses. Another person interprets on the second and fourth Saturdays.
Sacred Heart is the only parish in the St. Cloud Diocese offering weekly signed Masses for the deaf and hard of hearing, though other parishes may provide interpretation at special Masses.
“At Mass, because I’m the only one interpreting, it can be very intense,” Susan said. “Initially my brain was working so hard to process everything that I would come away not remembering all that had happened. Now I have a more prayerful approach.”
When the Catholic Church changed the language of its liturgy a few years ago, she said, interpreters rethought how to interpret pieces to ensure it was inclusive of new texts.
The Lord’s Prayer, Susan said, is a “frozen text” because its words never change. They came up with the most accurate interpretation, repeated every week so deaf persons have the same set of responses that others have and feel the same ownership as people who hear.
To enter the two-year program for simultaneous interpretation, students need four years of sign language classes. To receive national certification, they also need a bachelor’s degree — Susan’s is in education.
“I like playing with language and learning. The broader my knowledge base is, the better I am,” she said. “It’s important to interpret without skewing with my own biases. My role is to be a conduit.”
Susan grew up in the Presbyterian church, which has a liturgical base and familiar structure, a strong foundation for interpreting, she said.
“I’ve learned to use terms differently. In Catholic churches, the sanctuary refers specifically to the table, lectern and pulpit, but in Protestant churches, the sanctuary is the entire worship space, including the pews.”
The more Susan studied the liturgy and interpreted at Masses, the more she fell in love with Mass.
“And the harder it was to be denied Communion,” she said. “In my background, if you profess the faith, you could take Communion, but in the Catholic Church, you cannot unless you’re a member. When I first interpreted the Eucharist, it was painful to not take part in it. I would get teary trying to balance this.
“I prayed to God, ‘You know my heart, that I am here for you.’ God told me, ‘If you’re going to do this, come.’ So through RCIA, I became a full member. Joining the Catholic Church has been the best experience, meshing my personal faith with my role as interpreter of Mass.”
Susan finds it a privilege to interpret at funeral Masses.
“A lot of healing happens at funerals. Some deaf people may be estranged from their families and, through an interpreter, they can hear family stories they may never have heard. Because interpretation includes them, it’s powerful.”
As her personal ministry, Susan takes home the prayer card with the deceased’s obituary and picture, telling families she will pray for them. For the last 15 years she’s prayed each month for every family.
She enjoys seeing the deaf community take active roles.
“One deaf couple always signs responses to the call to worship and eucharistic prayers, signing at the same time as I am, like a conversation. Seeing that may be a new experience for people here but in the Twin Cities, people in the deaf community are very involved on church committees for worship or accessibility committees.
“We interpreters are always interpreting for everybody, including hearing people, though they’re not our primary focus. We never know whose life we’re impacting. Hearing people often tell me how much interpretation enhances their worship, understanding the Scriptures or prayers in a new way.
“It’s been my dream to open access for all levels of Church to the deaf so they can participate more fully in their faith community,” she said. “The more ways we can make faith accessible to all people, the more we all benefit — and that glory goes to God.”
Story by Nikki Rajala | Photography by Dianne Towalski.