Signs, Wonders and the Salvation of Souls

Sign language is, indeed, a language of love.

A monument to Pedro Ponce de León, a Spanish Benedictine monk who is often credited as being the first teacher for the deaf, stands in Retiro Park in Madrid.
A monument to Pedro Ponce de León, a Spanish Benedictine monk who is often credited as being the first teacher for the deaf, stands in Retiro Park in Madrid. (photo: Shutterstock)

When they see the name “Ponce de León,” most people think of the Spanish explorer who landed in Florida in 1513. But in 1520, another Ponce de León was born: Pedro Ponce de León. It is unfortunate that his story is not well known, because he was one of the greatest and most important communicators in history. Although much of the hearing world is unfamiliar with him, he is well-known and appreciated in the deaf community. And for good reason. He is known as the inventor of sign language.

Pedro Ponce had an early vocation, taking vows as a Benedictine monk as a teenager. As Marilyn Daniels explains in her book Benedictine Roots in the Development of Deaf Education, the Benedictines were famous for their schools and teaching, but the deaf were largely excluded. Not only was there a perplexing communication problem, but many people considered the deaf to be unable to learn.

One day, Pedro met a man named Gaspar de Burgos. Gaspar wanted to join the monastery, but was refused because he was deaf. Pedro thought this unfair and unfortunate; after all, callings occur in the heart and soul, not in the ears. Pedro and Gaspar developed a system of communication by signing, and Pedro was able to teach Gaspar the Catholic Faith so well that he was eventually accepted to the order. But as it turns out, Gaspar was only the first of many students for Pedro.

Daniels writes that Pedro Ponce founded a school for the deaf, which was extraordinarily successful. He was perfecting a pedagogical system that developed sign language. Daniels writes that students — once thought incapable of learning due to their deafness — were learning Greek, Latin, physics and astronomy. They were learning their Catholic Faith and practicing that Faith with greater ease.

Ponce de León’s “accomplishments are legendary,” writes Daniels, and continues: “Pedro Ponce de León is recognized as the first successful teacher of the deaf in the Western world.” As the deaf Ferdinand Bertheir phrased it many years ago, Pedro Ponce was able to “deliver the deaf from the deep night in which they have been struggling for many long centuries.”

We should rightfully admire Pedro Ponce for his efforts, but there are other heroes to this story: his students. For without the tremendous perseverance of his deaf students, Pedro Ponce could have accomplished very little. Together, Pedro Ponce and his students discovered something that Socrates had discovered many centuries before: there is no teaching without learning, and there is no learning without teaching.

And though Pedro Ponce helped develop a more universal system, it is not exactly accurate to say that he was the “inventor” of sign language. Throughout history, deaf persons and their hearing families and friends have developed their own forms of sign language among each other. They witness a beautiful reality: love seeks, inspires and fosters communication.

Sign language is, indeed, a language of love.

This biography of Pedro Ponce is important for us Catholics today. Recently, Lisa and I have been blessed to become friends with a young deaf woman, and I have begun viewing the world — at least in some small measure — from her perspective. And I have noticed that the vast majority of Masses do not offer sign language interpreters. Not only is that a shame, the effect of that absence of sign language is startling: only a tiny percentage of deaf persons attend religious services of any kind.

The Gospels witness that Jesus had a special love and caring for the deaf; that should inspire us to imitate Him. Jesus commanded us to “love one another.” Offering sign language at Mass is a visual expression of that divine command.

It is easy to say that people can simply read lips, but reading lips proves extremely difficult; in fact, it borders on impossible to read lips with complete accuracy. And as I have come to discover, some people’s lips are harder to read than others (including mine, apparently). But even if lip reading were easy, it is not sign language. For many, sign language is their primary language. It is a beautiful form of communication, and it should be widely offered.

Beyond that, it would be tremendous if priests could learn sign language to serve the deaf in Confession and with the other sacraments. Learning American Sign Language is not easy; I am finding it difficult myself. But when it comes to the salvation of souls, the difficult is often necessary. Difficult, necessary and wonderful.

There are those who say that if there were such a demand for sign language among parishioners, they would ask for it. Maybe. But as French economist Jean-Baptiste Say once observed: supply creates demand. If parishes begin to offer sign language at Mass, they may be pleasantly surprised by the new turnout. We also may see something else: more and more vocations to the priesthood among the deaf.

This is about the salvation of souls, and that is our joyful calling.