By Rev Michael Whelan
On Sunday 28th June 1998 I, along with my brother Tony, was ordained as a deacon by Archbishop Patrick Kelly at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool. It is very unusual for two brothers to be ordained on the same day. Much was made of the fact that we do many things together: we both work for Parcelforce and are based at the same depot; we also both follow Everton. One thing which applies only to me, though, is that I stammer. I have done for almost as long as I can remember. For me having a stammer was like being in a prison. It followed me around everywhere; it destroyed my confidence. I knew that at the times when I would feel free it would come out of hiding and get me. This is what it had done for nearly all my life.
At school, I was picked on and bullied by some children and was ridiculed by teachers. I became an introvert. I avoided all things which included talking, sometimes being physically sick with fear. During all of this I still went to church. I could speak to God without stammering and I knew he loved me whether I had a stammer or not.
When I was twelve I decided that I wanted to become a priest and go to help the missionaries in Africa. All of a sudden my torturer appeared again and I realised that I could never be a priest as it meant being a leader and involved lots of public speaking. I changed my mind - the priesthood was not for me. I have always regretted that decision.
When I was older I would not apply for jobs unless I knew for certain that it would not involve public speaking in front of others. I have refused promotion on a couple of occasions due to the fact that I would have to hold team meetings regularly.
A couple of years ago I was at a wedding and I heard the father of the bride, during his speech, say how proud he was of his daughter. I realised that in a couple of years I would have to do the same, maybe sooner rather than later as I have two daughters as well as a son. That is when I decided to go to speech therapy. It helped me to accept who I was; that I was not a stammerer, but that I was a valued person first and foremost, loved by my wife and family and friends; that I had a lot to offer people; and that in one small area of my life I was less than perfect: I had let myself be controlled by my stammer. I came to realise that that is what it was: I was letting my stammer control me. I was determined to break out of my prison.
I was forty years of age by this time and I vowed never to let my fear of stammering deter me from doing what I wanted to do again. In 1995 my parish priest asked my brother and I if we felt like becoming deacons: I thought long and hard about it. I wanted to accept immediately, but my torturer appeared again. I wrestled with it and then after a couple of weeks I decided not to give in and I accepted.
The three years of training weren't all plain sailing though: after a year I got an attack of nerves and took a year off to think about it . All my old fears came back. I was about to refuse God yet again. That week I read about Moses, how he had a speech impediment and yet he led his people to freedom. That was it. I had realised God had given me a second chance. Stammer or not, nothing was going to stop me this time.
I am now an ordained deacon which carries the title of Reverend. My role is to be a link between the church and the people. Deacons are the primary readers of the Gospel; we assist at mass and we can also give a homily or sermon. We can baptise or marry people and we can also conduct funerals and lead other forms of worship outside of the mass, all of which involve public speaking.
My stammer? Well I am out of prison but my fear still raises its ugly head now and again. It is much more comfortable to give in to the fear of my stammer and hide behind it but I know that if I do later on I will feel like a loser. I am sometimes petrified when I read the Gospel in front of an almost full church, but afterwards the feeling you have done it is great, especially when people come up and thank you for the reading. I've got my priorities sorted now. Each challenge now I try to take on, and each success I visualise as gaining a winner's medal.
I continue to attend the Willy Russell Centre in Liverpool for speech therapy and I was really pleased to see speech therapists Mary and Hillary and many of my fellow service users at the cathedral on my big day. Without Mary, Hillary and Ian and without the support of the Thursday evening group, who were my audience and critics when practising my public speaking, I would never have achieved this. I would like to thank them all.
Speaking Out, Autumn 1998