‘Over many years, I have lived a diaconal call’
Over many years, I have lived a diaconal call, often in collaboration with my spouse, whose military career made us a family on the move. On the way, we became leaders in Engaged Encounter and Marriage Encounter, and we were nourished and strengthened by immersion in parish life and small Christian community in many forms in many places.
In the early 1980s I witnessed a woman lead a weekday communion service and preach and first sensed my call to do the same. Volunteering in a parish, initially a way to make friends and gain a sense of belonging wherever we were, nurtured in me a growing desire to serve on a parish staff.
By 2000, my life had shifted. Eight of our nine children had completed college, we settled in Raleigh, NC, and I joined the staff of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in an administrative capacity. However, my passion was for ministry, so I took advantage of online training to become a Master Catechist through the STEP program at Notre Dame, subsidized by the diocese. That prepared me, after years of involvement and leadership in various family ministries, to assume the parish staff position of Coordinator of Family Life Ministries and Evangelization. In this role I initiated the renewal of small Christian communities, led small group sharing on the lectionary, led retreats and offered spiritual direction, brought Eucharist to the sick and homebound, served meals at Oak City Cares and ministered to migrants.
But I had a still deeper desire. In 2002, my husband and I completed “Preaching the Word,” a nine-month course offered by the Dominicans, and I began seriously looking for ways to fulfill the dream planted in me in the 1980s. When the staff was asked in 2004 if anyone might be willing to offer communion services when the Franciscan friars needed to be away, I volunteered, of course! I “retired” from my job in 2014, but until the pandemic intervened, I continued to preside and preach four or five times a year for an assembly of 50 to 75. I received so much affirmation from this weekday community! When our last Franciscan pastor invited an ordained deacon to preach on Sundays and perform other sacramental diaconal duties, I felt it keenly. I believe I am gifted and called to this sacramental ministry as a deacon, but it is not allowed to me as a woman. Still, our director of liturgy often tells me that I am a deacon and continues to invite me to preside at prayer services whenever he can.
In 2010 I became a spiritual director through the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and in 2016 I sought further formation in the Ignatian Exercises and Ignatian spirituality. I now coordinate a parish team of five other trained spiritual directors while continuing to offer spiritual direction myself. I am an Emmaus Minister helping grieving families plan liturgies for their deceased loved ones and was asked to preside at two wake services. With my husband, I continue to facilitate Just Faith programs, most recently on racial issues. Separate from the parish, my husband and I assist with formation for our Secular Franciscan fraternity.
My husband says I am busier now than when I was working full time at the parish. The truth is, I love it, and I know that it is the Holy Spirit who opens doors for me to minister. At age 78, I know diaconal ordination is not possible for me. I am grateful for having been able to serve all these years regardless of ordination or status. It has all been gift! Even so, I believe my beloved parish has been denied the fullness of my gifts as well as those of so many other women.
Gladys Whitehouse is retired from her position as Coordinator of Family Life Ministries and Evangelization at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she remains an active minister.
[Photo: Gladys Whitehouse blesses the friars departing St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C., August 30, 2020.]
“The Church needs to hear the voice of women to fully listen to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Women are already being called as deacons. I know women who have received the gift to preach and to share their gifts with the Church but have not been allowed the opportunity. It would help renew the Church and call back disenfranchised Catholics — old and young — who are leaving their faith tradition because they sense the lack of inclusion. The time has come for the Church to be open to receiving the full grace of the Holy Spirit working in our midst.”