Gail Gill – Still on the Journey

This week we are privileged to hear from Gail Gill in her own words – thanks so much for sharing your story, Gail! And STOP PRESS – the Working Document for the Continental Stage of the 2023-2024 Synod of Bishops has just come out. It mentions permanent deacons a few times, including that they may have felt that “the institutional Church was not interested in their faith experience or their opinions.” (#32) The document also explains that many of the synthesised reports asked the Church to continue to discern on the female diaconate (#64).

For over 30 years, two gospel passages in particular have stayed with me. The first is Luke’s story of the journey to Emmaus which continues to challenge me to stop and recognise where I am on this journey, to notice who is there with me and who is missing. This is not a constantly circular journey, but more of a spiralling through sometimes familiar points ‘on the road’ and visiting again as a more seasoned traveller. Moving as the two travellers on the way to Emmaus did, from disillusion to understanding, from blindness to ‘seeing’ with the eyes of my heart, from separation to community and celebration are not once only, or the same experiences. They become increasingly richer experiences of the paschal rhythm to all of life.

The second passage is the question that Jesus asks his disciples in Mark’s Gospel – who do you say I am? I need to keep engaging with that question and to also know that there will be times when I will struggle to respond and will rely on the presence of Jesus in others to help me respond.

My Christian formation began in the pre-Vatican II Church. My final years in secondary school coincided with the final years of Vatican II. I remain forever grateful to the religious women who taught me, for keeping me informed of the exciting changes that were emerging from Rome.

At the age of thirty, following a career as a graphic artist in advertising, the birth of two children and a divorce, I began study at the then Catholic Teachers College. It was a time of absolutely joyful learning, of rediscovering my faith and encountering a church that was all refreshingly new to me. Lecturers spoke about spirituality and I came to understand that they were referring to something larger than the devotions I had known; spirituality had not been part of my pre- Vatican II vocabulary. Until then, for me, the bible had been the very large book that had pride of place on the family book-shelf. I was familiar with some of its stories from school and my missal but that was about it.

Having the world of the scriptures and theology opened up for me was an extraordinary experience that still fills me with gratitude. I changed my initial choice of psychology as a major study and have continued study and reading in scripture, spirituality and theology ever since.

I worked in Catholic education in Sydney and Broken Bay for over 30 years as a teacher and also in leadership positions. As a consultant to schools, I noticed that school principals were increasingly inviting me to work with them and their communities in areas of spirituality. This was way beyond the parameters of my role, but it was work that I loved and I somehow found the time to do it. This began a turning point that led to a change of direction.

Around 2006, the then Bishop of Broken Bay, David Walker, announced a new ministry for women that would “enable women to participate more fully in the life and leadership of the Diocese, supporting the Bishop in the pastoral care of the people.” Following formation and acceptance, in a liturgy of consecration, Bishop David asked me for promises to follow the statutes of the association of Mary Star of the Sea (MSSA) and to live a simple lifestyle of chastity and obedience to him as bishop.

In many ways, this ministry followed the permanent diaconate pattern of continuing in current employment and giving of your own time to a particular ministry. I did this by working with some parish priests to provide pastoral planning and formation for PPCs as well as continuing to accept invitations to provide formation/retreats for emerging school advisory boards.

All of that changed when I was invited to take up appointment in a parish as a Coordinator of Parish Life according to canon 517.2 which enables a layperson to care for a parish, with a priest moderator. At the time, it was a huge decision to resign from Catholic Education and to let go of career ambitions. It was an interesting experience that highlighted the need for preparation of the community and adult formation and education that would assist people to appreciate new approaches to parish pastoral leadership.

Since then, I have continued to work in five parishes in various roles by appointment of the bishop. Following Bishop David’s retirement, and the eventual appointment of two different bishops, I became the last member of MSSA. I continue in part time pastoral ministry in one parish.

For the past 6 years I have been a member of the diocesan formation team for the permanent diaconate. It has been a personally enriching experience of learning while also being tinged with a longing for the inclusion of women in this formation for diaconal ordination. The restoration of the permanent diaconate was promised in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, now 60 years ago, and was restored after the Council closed. It may be time to review and renew how the ministry of permanent deacons is exercised. Currently, it most usually parallels the ministry of transitional deacons. This may also be the time to discern ministry for permanent deacons that extends beyond a base parish community into a myriad of contemporary ministries.

Gail reading at Mass at the National Deacons’ Conference in October 2022

Most of us are well aware of women, both lay and members of religious congregations, who engage in ministry that is similar to and sometimes goes beyond the ministry of permanent deacons. Diaconal ordination of women is not a closed question in church but it remains as a 30 year ongoing conversation. I am hopeful that this will eventually become a reality. Ministry for lay women and men is changing, for example the installation of lectors, acolytes and catechists that is waiting to be enacted. The possibility of diaconal ordination for women does not assume that all women who are currently engaged in ministry are automatically being called to the permanent diaconate, any more than it does for men who are currently engaged in ministry.

Having experienced consecration for the ministry of MSSA, I have tasted the grace of the Holy Spirit for ministry. I can only imagine the grace of diaconal ordination, not only for those being ordained but also as a grace for the Church. We are a sacramental Church.

Pope Francis asks us to imagine new ways of being church. He has said that synodal is not an adjective – it is church. He is doing so much to fully implement Vatican II – especially the primacy of baptism that invites us all to become missionary disciples so that the identity of all ministers, lay and ordained, is as baptised believers. Order in Church need not imply hierarchy – all of us, the baptised, are called to participate with different gifts and responsibilities – some as ordained disciples, some as minister disciples.

I would like to be part of imagining what is possible for the future of the permanent diaconate.

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