It is Saturday morning, the solemnity of the Annunciation, and time for the Lenten retreat to begin. Attendees have gathered in the Spirituality Center of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa, animatedly greeting each other and catching up on each other’s lives. The Monsignor at the front of the room makes sweeping hand gestures to indicate his readiness to begin the retreat presentation. He uses no voice because no voice is necessary — most of the retreat participants are deaf, and American Sign Language (ASL) is their primary mode of communication.

For those who can hear but are not fluent in sign language, earphones are provided, through which they can hear the soft voice of a young woman at the back of the room, interpreting the ASL into spoken English. Monsignor Glenn Nelson, director of the deaf apostolate of Rockford, IL, is visiting St. Timothy to present a special Lenten retreat in ASL to our deaf community. His topic: The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

St. Tim’s has had a deaf ministry for over 30 years, serving deaf Catholics in the East Valley and beyond. Every week, an interpreted Mass is offered for the community at 10 a.m. Pastor Father John Greb knows ASL and is especially dedicated to serving the needs of deaf people. He signs when saying the 10 a.m. Mass and offers Reconciliation in ASL during regular hours for confession or by appointment.

A few years ago, he contacted his long-time friend, Monsignor Glenn Nelson, and invited him to come to St. Tim’s to lead a deaf retreat. Before a date could be finalized, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyone’s plans.  Once the pandemic seemed to have subsided, Monsignor Nelson reached out to Father John, and the Lenten deaf retreat was back on track. Father John, excited at the prospect, said that with the new Eucharistic Revival that’s beginning in the U.S., a presentation on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist would be the perfect topic. Monsignor agreed, as this is one of his favorite teaching topics, too.

The retreat attendees paid rapt attention as Monsignor explained how, through transubstantiation, the substance of the bread and wine in the Eucharist becomes Jesus Christ’s real presence — His body and blood, soul and divinity. One of the deaf attendees commented, “What a beautiful reflection on communion from Monsignor Nelson! It awakened me to the importance of attending Mass and taking the bread, which is really Jesus; He is true life eternal.”

Monsignor also explained several significant happenings in biblical and church history, as well as some miraculous events. Monsignor Nelson noted, “I was in awe of the hunger within the deaf community for religious knowledge. I also enjoyed watching the expressions on the various participants’ faces when a specific point brought either enlightenment to a new concept or a moment of grace that touched the heart. The Holy Spirit was definitely touching hearts, and it was an honor and privilege to witness the Holy Spirit in action!”

When the retreat was concluded, Monsignor Nelson was available for the sacrament of reconciliation in ASL for the retreat attendees, followed by the regularly scheduled 5 p.m. Mass at St. Timothy.

This was a special Mass, bringing both the deaf and hearing communities together. Monsignor Nelson celebrated the Mass using only ASL, while Father John voiced for him. The first and second scripture readings were signed by deaf lectors, Pam Seymour and Susan Garner — both St. Timothy parishioners, while Fr. John voiced the readings. During Monsignor’s homily, Rebecca Eiler, an interpreter from Christ the King Catholic Church, spoke into a microphone to provide voice interpretation for the hearing congregation. In this way, the needs of both the deaf and hearing communities were met. Monsignor said, “I am pleased to see how well the deaf and hearing communities mixed and how they both had a mutual appreciation for the other.”

After Mass, the deaf community met at the rectory, and the group enjoyed chicken wings and pizza made by Father John on his famous smoker grill. An evening of good food, stories, laughter and fellowship was shared. Father John also gave the group a brief tour of his in-house chapel and showed us several meaningful religious carvings brought back from the Holy Land. One of the deaf attendees commented, “It’s a wonderful feeling to have this sense of belonging, like a family, getting this support from Monsignor Glenn and Father John for the Catholic deaf community.”

The deaf community is so grateful to Father John and Monsignor Nelson for the special time at this retreat. Monsignor Nelson commented that he loves the time he spends serving the deaf Catholic community.

He said, “My time with them feels like what I imagine the early disciples experienced when they would travel to various towns and preach the Gospel message, and witness the hunger and enthusiasm of the community before them receiving God’s holy word… It is very much a ‘Pentecostal’ experience to bring the Gospel message in a language used by a community that has waited for a messenger to preach it in. The community at St. Timothy is blessed to have Father John Greb who uses his ability in sign language to bring that message to them already. There were some deaf people who drove a long distance to attend the retreat because they do not have a priest that knows sign language [or an interpreter] near them, and I know they were inspired by the community in Mesa, who welcomed them with open arms. I pray that the spark that was initiated by the Holy Spirit during the retreat will continue to grow into a great flame of faith for all who experienced the weekend. May their love for Our Lord in the Eucharist increase and may they share that love with others who are hungry for the God who wishes to save us all!”

Learn more about St. Timothy’s deaf community.