The priest, robed in red, processes down the aisle to the church entrance and removes his mask—though he won’t be speaking.
An assistant presider holds open a thin red book with the Blessing of the Palms. The priest, a youthful-looking man in his early 50s with a full head of dark hair and lively eyebrows, peers into the book, then looks up at the small group of congregants gathered in the doorway holding palm fronds. He makes eye contact with each face, nods, and smiles. Then he begins to tell a story.
His face is mobile: radiant, then puzzled, then authoritative. His cheeks puff out as two disciples trudge on a journey, searching for a colt. His fingers splay when the pair reaches the Mount of Olives. His hands mime untying the colt, his face suddenly stern at the line, “The Master has need of it.” He touches his chest and then reaches outward, the crowd throwing down the cloaks along the road in front of Jesus. As the multitude praises, the priest claps, grins, and raises his hands. Blessed is the king who comes.
After the brief ceremony, the congregants enter the church, and the priest processes back up the aisle, looking from side to side at each person. The people wildly wave their newly blessed palm fronds, leaning to catch his eye. The priest merrily waggles his fingers back at them as he walks to the altar.
In utter silence.
Father Min Seo Park was the first deaf priest ordained in Korea and one of only a handful of deaf Catholic priests globally. He is a diocesan priest for the Archdiocese of Seoul, South Korea and is currently on missionary assignment to St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.
When he was 2 years old, Park fell ill and lost his hearing due to a medication he was given. Rather than send him to a school for the deaf, his parents hoped he would learn to speak and talk by attending school with hearing friends. It was not a success.
Unaccustomed to working with deaf students, the teachers offered no accommodation. Park shares that he does not speak well vocally, something that hampered his studies and made him feel “inferior to other people.” He did not learn how to read and write until he was 16 and introduced to Korean Sign Language at the Seoul National School for the Deaf.
“I learned sign language, and it changed my life,” he writes in an email conversation. “I was proud of myself, a Deaf person. I felt that sign language was God’s gift.”
A deaf art teacher introduced Park to Catholicism. Park became interested and was baptized. He knew no deaf priests, but he estimates there were about 150 deaf Protestant ministers in South Korea at that time.
“They were good at sign language and taught Bible to Deaf students,” remembers Park, who jokes that he was “tempted” to attend a Protestant church, just so he could understand the minister.
One day in prayer, Park asked Jesus to send him a signing priest. “[I] felt that Jesus said to me, ‘Why not you?’ I replied, ‘Me?’ ” he says. For the first time he considered the priesthood.
Priests and bishops dismissed his priestly vocation, Park reports, because of what they saw as his disability. He did not give up hope, even though it took 10 years to receive an answer.
Father Thomas Coughlin, the first deaf North American priest, encouraged Park to travel to Washington to study at Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college in the world specifically for the deaf.
Priests and bishops dismissed his priestly vocation, Park reports, because of what they saw as his disability.
Enrollment at 150-year-old Gallaudet hovers just above 1,000 students. It contributes significantly to the area’s particularly large deaf community. (In the United States, about 600,000 citizens self-identify as Deaf and 11.5 million have trouble hearing.) At Gallaudet, students learn and use American Sign Language (ASL) and English.
At Gallaudet, Park learned English as a second language and ASL as a third. In 1999 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in both mathematics and philosophy.
That same year, the archbishop of Seoul accepted him as a diocesan seminarian, and he entered St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, New York. In 2004 he earned his master of divinity degree from St. John’s University in Queens, New York—the first deaf person ever to do so—taking courses with sign language interpreters.
Msgr. Patrick McCahill, moderator of the Catholic Deaf Center in the Archdiocese of New York, mentored Park during his two years at St. John’s. McCahill learned to sign in seminary (“A friend dragged me to class, and people were wonderfully patient with this stupid seminarian who could barely do finger spelling,” he says), and he has been honored by the National Catholic Office for the Deaf for his lifelong service to and advocacy for deaf Catholics.
During Park’s studies, he lived with McCahill and interned at the St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Deaf Church in Manhattan, New York, where McCahill offers Mass and services for the deaf. “Min Seo’s capacity for persistence has always amazed me, even through difficult times,” says McCahill. “If he has a goal, he is going to work at it until he succeeds.”
Father John-Pierre Ruiz, associate professor and senior research fellow of the Vincentian Center for Church and Society at St. John’s University, says that “one of the happiest decisions” he made as department chair was to admit Park to the master’s program. “We are so proud of him,” says Ruiz. “Min Seo is way too modest about himself. He’s brilliant, capable, a self-starter. He’s an amazing human being.”
Ruiz was also Park’s professor in biblical Greek, a challenging course usually taught with a great deal of oral reading. Ruiz, who does not know ASL, adapted his pedagogy to include more writing than speaking. “Min Seo and his interpreter learned a lot of New Testament Greek in that class. He helped other students with their work in Greek. He couldn’t do it orally, but that did not prevent him from interacting very successfully,” Ruiz says. (If you’re counting, that’s Park’s fourth language.)
His adviser, Carmen M. Nanko-Fernández, is fluent in ASL, having learned it in an after-school club at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, New York, where she picked up a regional dialect. “When I sign, sometimes I get busted as being from New York,” she says.
Nanko-Fernández, now professor of Hispanic theology and ministry and director of the Hispanic theology and ministry program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, found Park to be “bright and smart and [to] have a lively mind.”
In his master’s thesis and a subsequent academic journal article, Park argues that the ways the deaf communicate (signing, working with interpreters, captioning) constitute a vernacular like any language:
“Because of their self-understanding as a distinctive culture, the Deaf constitute their own ecclesial community, bound together by language and shared experiences. As with other distinctive cultural communities, it is important to have pastoral ministers and religious leaders—lay, religious, and ordained—arising from within the community.”
“He makes a very strong case,” says Ruiz. “It invites us to rethink in serious ways what people imagine to be shortcomings or disabilities. People who belong to the Deaf community have agency and should have an active role in the life of the church.”
Park graduated as the first deaf master of divinity student at St. John’s and made the Daily News in New York. Both Ruiz and Nanko-Fernández display his graduation photo in their offices.
Park returned to Seoul and spent three more years in seminary, studying theology with the help of hearing seminarians who had learned sign language. He was ordained in 2007 as the first deaf priest in Asia. At that time, he reports, there were about 15 deaf Catholic priests in the world.
He became chaplain of the Deaf Catholic Center in Seoul, traveling to South Korean dioceses to sign Mass and give the sacrament of reconciliation in Korean Sign Language. He visited deaf Catholic communities in India, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
As word spread that a deaf priest was celebrating Mass in Korean Sign Language, the numbers of congregants attending grew. Soon, some 200 deaf Catholics were attending Sunday Masses in a space that quickly became cramped. The archbishop gave Park permission to begin what would become a 10-year-long fundraising effort for a new church for the deaf.
“Many people thought that it was impossible for me to build a new church building because I was Deaf and could not communicate with professional architects and hearing pastors,” Park explains. “I was advised to give up the big project.”
Park prayed and meditated on the passage in Luke about nothing being impossible with the will of God. He texted pastors throughout the archdiocese, introducing them to the project and asking to visit. He was “warmly welcomed” to 150 parishes, celebrating Masses with the help of vocal interpreters for hearing parishioners who had not known there was a deaf priest in the archdiocese.
People who belong to the Deaf community have agency and should have an active role in the life of the church.Father John-Pierre Ruiz
Some hearing parishioners went on to study sign language, volunteering as interpreters during services. Park sees this as “parishioners realizing that Deaf people were also baptized and children of God. The attitude of parishioners toward people with disabilities [and] Deaf people became better after they attended a Mass I celebrated in sign language.”
Park raised enough funds to purchase land in Majang-dong in the center of Seoul, where a new building that holds 350 people and includes spaces for community gatherings was erected in 2019. To open the church, Seoul Archbishop Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung celebrated Mass with more than 1,000 participants, including deaf dignitaries and visitors from Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States.
The archbishop surprised Park by naming the new parish “Ephatha”—based on the word Jesus spoke when he healed a deaf man. Park was also surprised to be appointed pastor.
In 2021, at the request of the auxiliary bishop of Washington, Park arrived at St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church as a missionary, to serve as chaplain there and as a Catholic chaplain at Gallaudet. In January 2024 he will return to Korea.
With encouragement from his mentors, Park entered the ecumenical doctor of ministry program at Catholic Theological Union, which focuses, says Ruiz, “on leadership, for someone who is going to be a significant change agent.”
Not all deaf Catholics want the same experience at Mass—some prefer ASL, some captioned services, others interpreters or lipreading—but most find a signing priest ideal.
Since there are only about 10 deaf priests in the United States, it is not possible for all parishes to have a deaf priest, and not all churches can afford interpreters. The deaf community has asked that seminarians be encouraged to study ASL.
“It’s the whole missionary principle,” says McCahill. “You want native clergy who understand the culture. Communication will be more accurate. There’s a bonding that takes place.”
Park aligns the importance of saying Mass in ASL with the relevance of celebrating Mass in Spanish or Vietnamese for those communities—congregants want a priest who speaks or signs their native language. “Deaf people really need more Deaf priests,” he writes. “Whenever I use sign language, I become happy and joyful. I get some spiritual energy when I communicate with Deaf people in sign language.” It is easy to see.
As Park celebrates Masses with about 30 people at St. Francis and another 10 college students at Gallaudet, he is a sheer delight to watch. His face is illuminated, eyebrows rising and falling dramatically. His signing is in turn graceful, welcoming, and prayerful. The congregation responds with raised and waving arms, wiggling fingers, and delighted expressions.
He credits his early love of movies and musicals with influencing how he signs and celebrates Mass. “When I was a Deaf child, there was closed captioning and sign language interpretation on TV,” he says. “When I watched TV movies and drama, I did not understand what they said. However, I carefully looked at their facial expression and body language, and I somewhat understood what they meant. Their facial expression and body movement helped make me who I am now.”
Clearly, his congregants respond—with palpable joy. In large part, Park argues, they do so because they see themselves reflected as Catholics of value, as part of a vibrant community.
I remain in Deaf people and Deaf people remain in me. I believe that my Deafness is God’s amazing grace.Father Min Seo Park
Park navigates considerable cultural shifts with flexibility and compassion—the worlds of hearing and deaf, Washington and Seoul, American and Korean Sign Languages, and even between the Buddhism of his childhood and his eventual Catholicism.
“Min Seo’s famous!” says Nanko-Fernández. “He is a global player. He doesn’t wear that though. But he’s done things no one else in the world has done.”
His guidance is his ordination quote, Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.”
“It is good for me that I remain in Jesus Christ and He remains in me. I remain in Deaf people and Deaf people remain in me. I believe that my Deafness is God’s amazing grace,” Park says. There go those dancing eyebrows again. “God is mysterious.”
This article also appears in the September 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 9, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Courtesy of Father Min Seo Park