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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXII, No. 3
Michaelmas 2007

Defending the Faith
Margaret Whitehead -- DRE Retires

by Henrietta Gomes

Teaching the faith near the time of the Second Vatican Council, Margaret Whitehead faced challenges she never anticipated. With the dramatic change in the secular culture drifting into the Church, and many promoting their misinterpretations of the conciliar documents, Whitehead continued in her mission to catechize even the most seemingly apathetic youth.

New dissenting agendas flowed in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II”, and many religion textbook publishers usurped the supernatural aspect and left out many fundamental elements, said Whitehead, who recently retired from her position as Director of Religious Education at Holy Spirit Parish in Annandale, where she served for 13 years.  

“It was a rebellious time”, she said. “The times had been impacting them”, said Whitehead, who although introverted by nature knew she had to be bold and defend the faith.

Growing up in an Irish Catholic family, Whitehead had always been “excited to teach the faith to children.”

“Preparing children for sacraments, every year you go through a cycle where something wonderful happens. It’s very inspiring because it’s very real”, said Whitehead, who spent 45 years of experience teaching the faith. “In a world that can be so negative, it’s positive to tell people the Good News”, she said.

It was not always the easiest thing.

“Cultural forces were at work outside the Church”, which made people think that “everything is up for grabs”, she said.

“People forgot that the truth was there”, Whitehead said. “I never thought I’d have to defend it … but it was under attack. Every generation has to defend it, and let Christ into our lives and lead others to Him.”

She recounted an experience while she was teaching in New Rochelle, N.Y., in the ‘70s when her seventh grade students gave her a difficult time in the classroom.

“They weren’t apathetic, they were fighting me”, said Whitehead. Her students didn’t seem to care about the sacraments, but were always willing to challenge what they knew of Church doctrine. After interviews with the parish priest, all of the students received the sacrament of confirmation the following year.

It was 10 years before Whitehead could genuinely comprehend the magnitude of what had occurred. One of the then-defiant teens approached her and conceded that her class 10 years ago had changed his life, and that he had been frequenting the sacraments and attending Mass every Sunday.

“I was overwhelmed. I had no sense from those students that I was having any impact on them”, she said. It was almost as if it were a sign from God to continue in her work as a catechist.

“If you don’t fold when people challenge you, if you care enough to defend what you believe, some people will be impressed”, said Whitehead, who is on the advisory board for Women for Faith & Family, an organization that assists women in their effort to provide witness to their faith, both to their families and to the world. She was also involved in teaching chastity. In 1988 when the federal government was promoting premarital abstinence programs, Whitehead applied for and was awarded a grant that allowed her to offer chastity programs in Virginia, Washington and Maryland. Now she hopes to work in special education and find other ways to teach the faith perhaps as a volunteer religious education teacher.

“The Holy Spirit takes care of us”, said Whitehead, who admitted she will miss teaching and being with the people at the parish.  The avid reader looks forward to catching up on reading. History, fiction, theology and philosophy are among her favorites and Whitehead has already been reading the writings of the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“He’s one of my favorites”, said Whitehead, who was married to her husband, Kenneth, in a side chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome almost 50 years ago. She looks forward to celebrating their golden wedding anniversary next year.

Whitehead also said she plans to continue her work in the pro-life movement, something she is passionate about.

“I’m not an activist by nature. I’m an introvert who likes to sit at home and read books. Fighting the abortion [issue] has been the hardest… It’s so hard to take in even after all these years. So much of the truth seems so obvious…”

Regarding her plans for the future, Whitehead said, “I’m waiting for the Holy Spirit.”

She said the verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans — “the Spirit too helps us in our infirmities…” (8:26) — has “been very calming to me.”

Though she doesn’t have her retirement planned out, one thing is for sure, Whitehead will continue to wake each day that the Lord gives her and ask, “what do you want me to do today?”

Copyright ©2007 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Related page: Margaret Whitehead

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