When Pope John Paul II comes to Baltimore this fall, interpreters will be hanging onto his every word at public appearances, not to translate into English, but to convey his messages and prayers in sign language.
"To be able to contribute is wonderful," said Patsy D. Bowman, who represents the Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities. "We're really happy to be included in the planning for this event. There are 385,000 deaf and hard of hearing people in Maryland, and often times we're invisible. They tend to leave us, the deaf community, out of big events."
Mrs. Bowman, who is deaf, spoke through a sign language interpreter.
Yesterday she and other members of Baltimore's Catholic deaf community met with representatives from the Archdiocese of Baltimore to discuss logistics, including trying to arrange for real-time closed captioning as part of the television pool arrangements.
The volunteer interpreters, who will number about 12, are being organized by the Rev. Michael J. Callaghan, a pastor at St. Jane Frances Church in Riviera Beach. He began learning sign language about seven years ago so he could sign his first celebration of Mass.
"I was sort of the obvious choice when we decided to offer this service," Father Callaghan said. "I work with the Catholic Deaf of Baltimore, and I sign Mass, confessions and baptisms. I'm trying to develop our ministry to the deaf."
The knowledge of sign language and the deaf community is relatively rare within the archdiocese, however.
While Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Towson has a volunteer sign language interpreter for its services, most other churches do not.
Father Callaghan said he wants the archiodese's effort to raise awareness within the religious community about the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing.
Representatives of the archdiocese have already shown their awareness by arranging for interpreters to translate news conferences before the papal visit, Oct. 7-8.
And, they're making arrangements for interpreters to work during all of the pope's public speaking engagements, including a weekend event for youth, a prayer service at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and the huge Mass planned for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The different venues pose a number of challenges, especially in trying to arrange where the interpreters can stand so their hands can easily be seen.
Seating arrangements must be made for those who are hearing impaired, and there was a discussion yesterday as to whether interpreters should carry walkie-talkies so they can be called upon if a hearing-impaired person needs assistance.
"The community at large thinks deaf needs are one," Mrs. Bowman said. "But there are broad needs for many individuals. Some hard of hearing people may not sign, some deaf people can sign in ASL [American Sign Language], some in English, and others don't sign at all."
The volunteers will be assigned to teams so that their talents complement one another.
"We'll have three interpreters signing three different things happening in an almost overlapping way," Father Callaghan said. "Someone may be interpreting the music, another person may interpret the spoken words, and another may lead the responses."
William J. "Billy" Bowman, who is serving on the planning committee with his wife, knows what a difference that will make to the hearing impaired who want to see the pontiff.
"The pope's coming to Baltimore is an historical event, something we'll always remember, but only if we're part of the experience," said Mr. Bowman, who like his wife is deaf and spoke through an interpreter. "We want to have the same kind of spiritual awakening as everyone else by being involved in this celebration. We want to use this as an opportunity to narrow the gap between the hard of hearing and deaf community and the Catholic church."