VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI lamented the serious lack of public programmes and measures for the needs of deaf people, and a lack of basic healthcare, which can prevent hearing impairment.

He spoke to some 400 people at a Vatican conference addressing the role of the deaf in the Church. Interpreters signed the pope’s words.

The Nov 19-21 conference was organised by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry and was dedicated to “The Deaf Person in the Life of the Church”.

The pope said it is impossible to forget “the grave situation” in which the deaf still live today in developing countries, with a lack of adequate policies and legislation, and difficulty in accessing “basic healthcare”. Deafness “is often the consequence of easily preventable diseases”, he added.

The pope appealed to authorities and international bodies to offer support to promote the “needed respect for the dignity and rights” of deaf people for “full integration into society”.

He praised the promotion of the rights of the deaf, especially Catholic initiatives that offer education and assistance aimed at developing their full potential.

The pope also spoke of another kind of deafness affecting the world – those unable to hear the voice of God and the cries of others who suffer and added, humanity must be healed and saved from a “deafness of the spirit, which raises barriers ever higher against the voice of God and the other”.

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the healthcare ministry council, said that 80 percent of more than 278 million people with a hearing impairment and 60 million deaf in the world, live in low- and medium-income countries.

There are 1.3 million deaf Catholics in the world, who needs pastoral care from the Church because deafness is “an invisible handicap” that is difficult for parishes to accommodate.

Making Mass and pastoral activities accessible to the deaf requires someone to translate the spoken word into sign language, without which a deaf person is isolated behind “an invisible and impenetrable wall of silence”.

The conference brought together from 65 countries, those involved in the care of the hearing impaired, to discuss ways the Church could provide proper support for the deaf, and numerous deaf and hearing religious fluent in sign language.

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