Fr Paul Zirimenya, who is deaf, was raised in Uganda, the third of nine children, including two sets of twins. He attended Catholic, Muslim, and Baptist schools in Uganda and went to both Masses and Jewish services as a child. He continued his education in the United States, earning a master’s degree in divinity from St Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California.
Since becoming a priest, Fr Zirimenya has given numerous retreats and workshops for the Catholic deaf community in the US, including a presentation for the International Catholic Deaf Association Conference held at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, in 2013.
The Catholic News put a few questions to Fr Zirimenya during his visit to Trinidad to conduct the September 8–9 retreat for the Touch of Christ Catholic Deaf Community.
Q: Fr Zirimenya, can you tell readers how you became deaf?
I had a middle ear fluid infection when I was six years old.
Q: Do you think Church administration has done enough for deaf Catholics?
Based on my encounters, and communicating with members of Touch of Christ, I think there is more to be done and revived in the Archdiocese of Port of Spain. Two major challenges for Touch of Christ come to mind: 1) a priest/chaplain available full-time in Deaf Ministry (working in collaboration with a team of priests and deacons); 2) a permanent parish or centre for Deaf Catholics.
Q: In performing your priestly ministry, have you encountered any form of discrimination or scepticism?
Yes, though I think parishioners I am blessed to serve have faced more discrimination and scepticism than I have had.
Q: How can Catholic faithful better support the deaf Catholic community?
I think in order to support the Deaf Catholic community, it is important to understand the common definition of the Deaf community, as a community that is bound together by a signed language visual/gestural in nature (American Sign Language, ASL- in the US), and a shared culture.
This community includes but isn’t exclusive to Deaf and hard of hearing adults, seniors, teens, and children all of whom may have either Deaf or hearing family members who can also be considered part of this community.
A small percentage of the Deaf community are deaf and blind, and they have additional communication needs. Also, some deaf people have multiple disabilities.
Q: How has being deaf enhanced your priestly vocation?
I first thought of priesthood when I was 14 years old. I recall, it was a paternal uncle, a priest, who often visited our home during the holidays. For me, as a teenager, I thought his cassock was cool – he was a superman with solutions to all life’s problems! But it wasn’t until 10 years later, when I was 24, that I seriously considered a calling to priesthood. My deafness was, of course, an issue but my parish priest (a missionary from Luxembourg, who was himself hard-of-hearing), assured and encouraged me. Time and again, he assured me there was no reason I shouldn’t pursue a vocation to priesthood if God was calling me even as a deaf man (Mark 7:34).
Q: Can you describe what your training to be a priest was like as a deaf person? What provisions, if any, were made in your training?
I was provided full access with interpreters and captioners for my classes, daily prayer, and Masses.
Editor’s Note: To get a better understanding of ministering to the Catholic deaf community, Fr Zirimenya encouraged Catholics to read the final recommendations from the XXIV International Conference, ‘Ephphatha! The Deaf Person in the Life of the Church’, held November 19 – 21, 2009.