Father Christopher Klusman of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is a busy, energetic, magnetic and well-loved priest.
He holds down two part-time assignments in the archdiocese and is greatly appreciated for his distinctive ability to bring the liturgy to a segment of the Catholic population who otherwise would not hear the Mass in their own language, American Sign Language.
Father Klusman serves the deaf and hard of hearing, and he speaks to them in their own language because he is deaf.
When he was just a little over a year old, Father Klusman’s parents, Elmer and Elaine, noticed that he wasn’t responding to their voices. Upon learning of their son’s deafness, they made a firm decision: He would be treated the same as their other three children.
That decision helped Christopher realize that his deafness wasn’t an obstacle, but, rather, the instrument through which he would serve God and others.
Even with that conviction, he feared he would not be able to achieve his dream: the priesthood.
But God showed him that his vocation was possible, and he embraces his priesthood with gusto.
In fact, Father Klusman has become known for the joy he emanates to everyone around him.
In a recent interview, Father Klusman shared about his deafness, his ministry and his joy.
Your parents say that they treated you like any other kid. How did that help you while growing up?
It helped me realize that I’m part of the family, in that I’m loved by them as much as my sister and brothers.
Oftentimes, a deaf child may be ignored, patronized, pitied, ashamed, misunderstood or overprotected by his or her parents and siblings.
My family taught me that being deaf is not a deficiency, but a positive attribute of myself. Being deaf doesn’t make me better than anyone else, just as being hearing doesn’t make them better than me.
I’m extremely fortunate that my parents saw me as "their son," whether I was born deaf or hearing.
How does that help you now?
In the way my parents raised me, they taught me to see other people as God’s children. Whether a person is born deaf, hearing, blind, etc., they are still "God’s beautiful children," entitled to be treated with the same respect, dignity and love as any other person.
I’m grateful for this important lesson by my parents because it helped me understand how important this is in the ministry of a priest, as the priest is "in persona Christi (in the person of Christ)." When you read about Jesus in the Bible, it is one of his defining characteristics.
What made you think you couldn’t become a priest because of your deafness?
At that point in my life, I traveled throughout the state of Wisconsin as a sign-language communication specialist. I met many deaf children from preschool to high school. I told them, in spite of others’ pessimistic views that they can’t achieve their dreams, they should continue to aim for their dreams. As long as they try their hardest, they’ll achieve them. Ironically, as I encouraged others, I never applied this concept toward the possibility of the priesthood.
There are two primary reasons why I thought I couldn’t become a priest. First, I never saw or met a deaf priest. This vacuum discouraged me as to the chances of a deaf person in that vocation.
Secondly, having the service of sign-language interpreters is important, but it costs money. The odds for a seminary to provide this service is slim.
I’m grateful that God made the service of sign-language interpreters a possibility through the support of many generous people. This taught me another important lesson: "Nothing is impossible with God." God never ceases to amaze us!
How does your gift of deafness affect your own prayer and meditation?
Surprisingly, my gift of deafness doesn’t really give me a moment of silence, as my mind can be "visually noisy," with a constant train of thoughts, distractions and "to-dos." I have to work just as hard as the hearing person to "quiet" my thoughts in order to meditate and pray. This is the same when I try to fall asleep at night. I actually envy people who can use their iPods while exercising, for the music’s rhythm can help them stay upbeat and energetic. But I sort of have an added bonus through my deafness: People have told me that many public places are bombarded with loud music, and many loud interruptions occur during the night.
I can study in a room quietly among various groups’ loud conversations and sleep soundlessly during the night. But, one time, my friend woke me up because he was bothered by our neighbor’s loud noises. Knowing that I can’t hear the noises, he woke me up and complained to me about the loud noises so I could suffer with him. Wise guy! (Smile.)
You’re known as a person who connects well with people. How do you do that?
I love to be with people, and I want to be able to relate to them.
I guess it comes naturally to me. I’m lucky that I am interested in a lot of things, and so I can relate to others’ interests.
My teaching background helped me know how to connect to people at their level.
I want people to be able to trust me, as I’d be grateful to be able to trust them. In order for relationships to work, it always has to be a two-way street.
There are many who say that you are the most joyful person they know. What is the source of your joy?
I’m extremely humbled when people say that about me. The source of my joy is God, for he enriched my life with the precious gift of my family.
God has given me so many other gifts, such as our faith, my vocation and friends. For that, I’m eternally grateful to God with joy.
I hope that my joy can be contagious, because it is a beautiful emotion. I hope that when people receive a greeting and/or a smile, they are transformed and become witnesses of joy for others. As a result, joy can be transmitted on and on.
I stay joyful, even during challenging times, because I stay mindful that, even during times of struggle, we still have God, our faith, family and friends. This joy helps to keep me afloat and to persevere onwards.
What is your position/ministry now?
My current assignments include two part-time assignments. I’m a part-time associate pastor at St. Roman Parish. I’m also a part-time associate director of the deaf/hard-of-hearing ministry for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m at St. Roman Parish. On Wednesdays, I do sacramental work for the deaf. On Fridays, I’m at the Archbishop Cousins Center. During the weekends, I do various ministerial services at St. Roman Parish and with the deaf, including weekend Masses.
What is the most fulfilling part of your work, and why?
It is the people. It is beautiful to see how the deaf are so emotionally moved that they finally have direct access linguistically to the Mass and other sacraments, as well as Bible study and other services.
Many of the deaf don’t have Mass and other services available in American Sign Language (ASL) in their area. If they do, it is often indirectly through an interpreter. Having their own priest, they relish learning with every opportunity possible, and that makes it all worthwhile. It is so moving to see their "A-ha!" moments that bring them closer and deeper in their relationship to God and our Catholic faith.
Also, the Mass is the source and summit of our day, that to be a part of it is a true and profound blessing. Where would we be without the Eucharist?
What is the most challenging part of your work, and why?
It breaks my heart when some media venues spread terrible and hurtful things about God and our beautiful and precious Catholic faith. It is so hard to untangle and correct people’s confusions from the media. It takes time to teach them how to know which sources are reliable and which aren’t.
Also, another challenging part of my work is the misunderstanding of others on deafness (whether consciously, unconsciously or both). It requires a lot of time, patience, prayer and education. It helps when people are open and receptive, but sometimes prejudices, obstacles, misunderstandings and other factors make it a more difficult process.
What/who is your main inspiration, and why?
My parents: my father, Elmer, and my mother, Elaine. They are my greatest role models. You truly see Jesus Christ and our Blessed Mother through them. No matter what, they always put their children first before themselves. Their love, humility, service, perseverance and faith inspire me. They taught me the Catholic faith. I don’t know where I’d be without them.
What advice can you give to others who are gifted with physical limitations?
See yourself through the eyes of God. Imagine the intensity of love, gratitude and enthusiasm when God sees you. Think the same way on how you see yourself. Don’t let others and your own pessimistic thoughts and words alter your perspective on being "God’s precious child."
"Physical limitations" are only limitations if you allow the limitations to control your life. Physical limitations teach us that God is the center and guide of our lives.
When we allow God to work through our physical limitations, the sky is the limit. If you let God, he will help you become stronger, dedicated and perseverant. You will also be more appreciative of what you have.
Soul Surfer is a movie about a young woman, Bethany Hamilton, whose arm was bitten off by a shark. She said regarding her one arm, "I wouldn’t change what happened to me, because then I wouldn’t have this chance, in front of all of you, to embrace more people than I ever could have with two arms."
Sometimes we have more opportunities through our physical limitations than without them. I feel the same about my deafness, for I can’t imagine who I’d be if I was born hearing.
What advice can you give to the parents of children gifted with physical limitations?
The most important advice for every parent, regardless of what children they bring forth, is to cherish each child as a perfect gift from God. Love them and support them. Be their greatest and constant advocates in their journey through faith and life.
Remind them of all the priceless treasures of our faith that teach them that they can do all things with God.
What are your hopes/goals for the future?
For the future, I hope to fulfill God’s will for me on a daily basis. I pray that people learn to see deafness not as a "disability," but as "another kind of ability."
I hope and pray that Catholic parishes will embrace the deaf community, so that they can have many opportunities to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.
Last but not least, I hope to continue to spread the joy to others that comes from God — and that they can pass it on to others.
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.