By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
When Matthew Hysell was eighteen months old, he contracted meningitis during an epidemic in the 1970s.
He received a vaccine and one of its side- effects was hearing loss. But Hysell, who can read lips, speak clearly and communicate via sign language, realized after he became Catholic that his deafness is a gift.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing for the deaf community today if I wasn’t deaf. So I see it as a blessing in disguise,” said Hysell, who will be ordained a transitional deacon in the Edmonton archdiocese on August 27th and hopes to become a priest next year.
Hysell, now 34, was born and raised in Michigan in a Baptist family. He converted to the Catholic faith at the age of 16 in 1993.
“When I read my history I found out that the Catholic Church goes all the way back to the time of Jesus,” he said. “That makes sense. I will join that one.”
But Hysell wanted to be a Catholic priest before he was Catholic. At age 13, he came across a book of black and white pictures of the life of a priest. The pictures showed the priest counseling couples, celebrating the sacraments, and seeing people “at their highest and lowest moments of life.”
“Wow this is cool but I can’t do this as a Baptist,” he said.
“I saw the priest as someone who gives himself to the other person, a whole self-gift that was so beautiful,” he said. “I couldn’t put it in words but it felt like something I should be doing with my life.”
His Baptist community offered a deaf centre program and interpreters, but when he became Catholic in 1993, “there was nothing for deaf people.”
Shortly after his conversion, he went to World Youth Day in Denver with other members of his parish.
On the last day, as Pope John Paul II celebrated the closing Mass, Hysell was in the handicapped section with a group of other deaf people. There he met Fr. Thomas Coughlin, the first deaf-born priest in the United States, who has since become a good friend.
“He was the one who challenged me to think about not just being a priest but being a priest for the deaf community,” Hysell said.
Working at a deaf camp Coughlin founded in Upper State New York also prompted him to think more about what he could do as a Catholic and as a priest for deaf people.
“It’s the same principle of the Incarnation,” He said. “God becomes one of us and speaks us in our language. It’s the same thing that he would call a priest, someone who was one of them, one of those deaf people who could speak to them in their language.”
The New York archdiocese under Cardinal O’Connor offered a deaf seminarian program, so at age 19, Hysell joined it in 1999 and obtained a BA in Philosophy at the City University of New York.
He finished a Master’s degree in Theology at the Dominican School in Berkeley, California. But Hysell was not through with his studies. He decided to go to Edmonton for three reasons:
- The deaf community in Edmonton wanted him to work with them
- Newman Theological College had a program he wanted that was not widely available in the U.S
- Archbishop Richard Smith knows sign language
“So I thought it was the perfect combination!” he said. He moved to Alberta in 2008, finished his thesis in 2009 and the archbishop asked him to consider priesthood and to stay in Edmonton.
There are no deaf priests in Canada, Hysell said, noting there are 12 in the United States. “I figured ‘Go where you’re needed,’ so I decided to stay.”
Hysell said growing up he never envisioned being a husband or a father. “I could never picture myself as a married man,” he said. “I was too much on the move.”
His understanding of the spousal nature of the priesthood came later. During his pastoral year, he was assigned to a parish that had 11 schools. He would go to the elementary schools to talk to the children and “they would come up afterwards and give me a hug.”
He realized he is a father to those children. “This giving yourself to your parish, that’s spousal,” he said.
Hysell was in Ottawa July 9-14 participating in the 11th Canadian Section of the International Catholic Deaf Association at Carleton University. He presented a workshop in sign language and Power Point to the 60 or so participants from across Canada. He spoke on the virtue of Charity.
His talk looked at the Sacraments of Marriage and the Eucharist, and how Charity is “the very centre of the Christian life.
“If you’re not charitable you’re not a Christian, it’s as simple as that,” he said.
“There are a lot of deaf people unfortunately who think that they have to put up with mediocre lives,” he said. “They think there is not much there for them.”
“The Church is here to tell them that God values them and their deafness is a gift,” Hysell said. “It needs to be recognized.”
“The Church wants us to flourish,” he said. “I hope we have missionaries to the deaf community, that we can tell them that God wants them to be happy.
“And I hope the deaf people are open to what the Church proposes to them, that the Church exists for the best interests of everyone.”