Once inspired by Pope Francis, Camden native ‘signs’ on to work papal visit

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 Camden native Victor Collazo will serve as one of the sign language interpreters during Pope Francis's visit to Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Camden native Victor Collazo will serve as one of the sign language interpreters during Pope Francis's visit to Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Victor Collazo grew up Catholic. But when his wife, Naureen, died of a sudden heart arrhythmia in 2002, he lost his faith. Now, Collazo will have the chance to give back to the man who helped rescue him from the depths of heartbreak.

Victor Collazo grew up Catholic. But when his wife, Naureen, died of a sudden heart arrhythmia in 2002, he lost his faith.

“I didn’t understand why [she died]. I was 29. She was 24. And I just didn’t understand what happened,” said Collazo, a sign language interpreter and Camden, N.J., native.

The loss cast a pall over him for 11 years, until a little-known cardinal from Argentina was elected pope and emerged from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica as the new leader of the Catholic Church.

“As an American Sign Language interpreter, we really focus on facial expression and body language,” Collazo said. “And when I first saw him, even before he spoke, I just connected for some reason.”

Collazo credits Pope Francis and his teachings with restoring Collazo’s faith and getting him back on the road to religion. (He even went on to establish a scholarship in his late wife’s name through the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre in Swarthmore, Pa., to help a deaf or hard of hearing high school student afford college tuition.)

“Unknowingly [Pope Francis] helps millions, but in my case it was just very, very profound,” Collazo said. “That day, March 13th, when he came out and they announced him as being the pope, he moved me. He changed my life.”

Now, Collazo will have the chance to give back to the man who helped rescue him from the depths of heartbreak.

During Pope Francis’s speech on Independence Mall this Saturday, Collazo will serve as one of several sign-language interpreters translating the event for the deaf and hard of hearing.

He was also tapped by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to interpret some of the live musical performances scheduled for the World Meeting of Families.

“It means a lot,” Collazo said. “It was such an honor.”

To prepare for the events, Collazo has been speaking more Spanish than usual with his Puerto Rican parents and has been practicing for two hours a day some of the songs that will be performed.

If called upon, Collazo is also ready to follow Pope Francis into the crowd if he decides to greet the faithful one-on-one, something Collazo says would not surprise him.

“Every time I see the Holy Father travel to a country or give a speech, just interacting with the average person, it says a lot to people,” he said, “because he seems to be more in tune with the average man.”

One of eight children, Collazo attended Holy Name elementary school in Camden, Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, and graduated from Rutgers University-Camden.

Having moved to Tucson, A.Z., only four years ago, he frequently takes the more than 2,000-mile journey back to Camden to visit friends.

He says family and friend will be watching television coverage of Pope Francis’s visit closely to see if they can spot him, but his parents will be looking for something else. When they heard who he’d be translating for, Collazo’s parents implored their son to ask Pope Francis to bless two strings of rosary beads for them.

The interpreter is cautiously optimistic he can deliver.

“I told them, I said, ‘you have to understand, I’m going to be interpreting, I’m going to be using my hands, so I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to reach out and have the Holy Father bless two rosaries,'” he said. “But I’ll have those rosaries in my pocket, and if I have the opportunity I will ask the Holy Father.”

If he has time, Collazo plans to ask for a blessing of his own, too.

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