Jesuit Father Joseph Bruce is one of the few priests in the world who has been deaf since childhood and the first deaf Jesuit priest. This hasn’t stopped him from ministering to both the hearing and the deaf. Fr. Bruce reads lips, knows many variations of sign language and speaks clearly — despite never having heard a spoken word in his whole life.
Currently Fr. Bruce ministers to a predominately deaf congregation in Landover, Md. He is one of eight deaf priests in the United States today, and when he was ordained to the priesthood in 1981, there was only one other deaf priest in the country.
Fr. Bruce said he first thought of becoming a priest while attending the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., when Jesuit Father Joseph LaBran suggested he become a Jesuit priest. “I responded by saying that the church did not allow deaf men to be ordained priests,” Fr. Bruce recalls. “Then Fr. LaBran said, ‘God is full of surprises. He can change things whenever he wants to.’ After that I began to think about it.”
Fr. Bruce says the greatest challenge in serving people is being able to lip-read. “Every person moves his or her lips differently when they speak,” he says. “Lipreading is very tiring. Lipreading every day is like running the Boston Marathon every day!”
He also recalls challenges as an undergrad. He wanted to be a Spanish major, but the modern language department wouldn’t allow it because he couldn’t “hear Spanish.” So Fr. Bruce asked if he could major in English, and he was given permission. “I remember keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that no one realized that I can’t hear English either!”
He also prevailed, after setbacks, to become a priest. Fr. Bruce applied to the diocese and the Franciscans, but both told him no. The Dominicans didn’t reply. Finally, the Society of Jesus said yes.
Today Fr. Bruce does pastoral ministry for the deaf community in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Marlana Portolano attends St. Francis of Assisi, the predominantly deaf parish where Fr. Bruce ministers and where her daughter attends catechism classes in sign language.
Portolano writes in America magazine, “In order to embrace the Catholic faith, my daughter needed to receive direct communication in a language she could see and understand. In signing the Mass, Father Joe, as he is known, opened my daughter’s eyes to essential practices of Catholicism. Every week Father Joe is able to hold the rapt attention of the entire congregation, even when he does not speak at all.”