Quietly learning to sign

Those who attended a signed Mass Aug. 30 say “I love you” with Father Max Biltz after a Mass at the Spiritual Life Center in Wichita. (Courtesy photos)


Father Max Biltz learning American Sign Language to celebrate special Masses

Father Max Biltz reasoned that learning sign language is similar to learning how to read or write Chinese – a symbol represents a word.

Fr. Biltz, parochial vicar of St. Mary Parish in Newton and Sacred Heart of Jesus in Halstead, is learning American Sign Language to celebrate signed Masses for the 45 people in the Diocese of Wichita’s Catholic deaf community.

He celebrated a signed Mass Sunday, Aug. 30, at the Spiritual Life Center that was primarily interpreted by Mark Benson, who is teaching Fr. Biltz.

“I signed a few things, but mostly I just spoke,” he said a few days after the Mass. “I explained that I’m slowly learning sign language – I’m not there yet – and explained that they’ll have to wait for me to be conversational.”

Fr. Biltz will now be celebrating the signed Masses in the diocese. He takes over as the unofficial chaplain from Fr. Ken Van Haverbeke who served the community for nearly three decades.

“After serving the deaf community for 29 years as a priest – initially been invited by Sister Veronice Born – I was very excited that Father Max was willing to learn the language, the culture and to take up the reins of this very important ministry.”

Still learning the language

Fr. Biltz is still learning, though.

“Sign language is a visual languge whereas other languages are audible,” he said. “It’s a visual language using hands and facial expressions to convey meaning.”

Fr. Biltz said learning American Sign Language, the most popular sign language in the United States, is similar to studying a foreign language. “There is a symbol for each word, but they will spell out names or words for which there is not sign – so it’s a mixture. It’s a challenge, but I don’t mind.”

Fr. Biltz said he’s learning about the deaf community, too. “They have their own culture. They have their own rules of etiquette,” he said.

“They’re delightful people. They’re just like everyone else except they have their own way of communicating…and they’re very proud of it.”