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A CHALLENGING but rewarding 50 years of service

— As Bishop John Cunningham of Galloway celebrates the golden jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood, MARY McGINTY gives us an insight into his lifetime of service to the Church in Scotland

A golden jubilee celebration is a fitting time for a priest to look back on a life of service and in Bishop John Cunningham’s case he gives particular thanks for the variety of his ministry. Teaching Canon Law in the seminary, six years at the head of the marriage tribunal at a time of change and representing the hierarchy on the Anglophone Conference on child and vulnerable adult protection have all contributed to this. Among the most satisfying experiences has been pastoral care for which he gives thanks to his seminary years in St Peter’s, Cardross for a solid grounding in the ministry.

Ever anxious to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers, Bishop Cunningham’s delight at being accepted to study for the priesthood was tempered by the news that he would not be going to Rome as his brothers had done before. But his disappointment at being sent to Cardross was assuaged by his parents’ relief at having one of their three sons at home. In the event ‘it was the best thing that ever happened.’

“It was a blessing because for the first time in my life I was somewhere my brothers had not been before me,” Bishop Cunningham said. “I had nothing to live up to or down. St Peter’s was a great experience because it was training us to be ‘general practitioner’ priests for working in parishes, unlike in Rome where the emphasis was more academic and where a degree at the Gregorian University was expected.”

In time, though, he had his chance to study in Rome. Still too young for ordination, when his studies at Cardross were completed, he was sent off to embark on Canon Law study which he completed after his ordination.

Approaching his ordination to Paisley Diocese, like any young seminarian, he was always keen to hear the words of wisdom his teachers would bestow upon him. Among the most sage advice, he said, came from his rector Mgr Edward Traynor who told them: “Boys, you cannot all be brilliant but you can all be brief.”

Advice, which he laughs as he said, he ‘tried to remember, although perhaps not always successfully.’ Other nuggets from the rector included the warning—particularly appropriate in the days when the chapel house was home to the parish priest and several curates and much depended on its smooth-running—that ‘curates are expendable, housekeepers are not.’

Recalling his earliest thoughts on the episcopate, he said: “In college we used to joke that anyone who wanted to become a bishop deserved to be one.” When the call came, through Bishop Joseph Devine, to meet the then Papal nuncio, Pablo Puente he was, at 66, relatively old to become a bishop. Asking for time to consider whether on grounds of age and health he should accept, the nuncio’s reassurances quelled his anxiety. And so, while those around him in secular occupations were embracing their retirement Bishop Cunningham was embarking on a new challenge as Bishop of Galloway.

If his years in the priesthood were sound training for becoming a bishop and moving to the neighbouring Galloway Diocese was a prospect he accepted willingly, the disparate needs and profile of his new diocese would present its own challenges.

“It was quite difficult coming in to a diocese in which the experience of the priests was so completely different from my own as most of them became parish priests quite young and most of them are on their own.” the bishop admitted. “Prior to being a bishop I was always with at least one other priest.”

Sadly for Galloway, the lack of vocations is a source of concern but the goodwill of the people when change has to be has been evident.

“We have no students in seminary and no indication that that will change,” the bishop said. “Even if I got some tomorrow we would be six years away from ordination. What worries me is that we have quite a number of priests over 60 and if we don’t suddenly get some vocations from somewhere we will have difficulty. Very few of my priests are looking after only one parish, some are looking after three parishes and sometimes they are not very close together.”

He continued: “Because of illness in Kilmarnock, Mass times had to change and the people recognised that this was being done because it was necessary. By having a reduced number of Masses they were better attended and they found an increased sense of community so there is always a plus and a negative side.”

A growing recognition that chaplaincy needs in schools and hospitals do not always have to be met by the clergy has lessened some of the burden and this summer’s three ordinations to the permanent diaconate will be welcome. It was through a conversation with a colleague at an annual Canon Law Society meeting Bishop Cunningham re-thought his views on the permanent diaconate.

“At the time there was a general lack of interest in the permanent diaconate and that was true of myself but at Canon Law Society meetings priests from other countries spoke quite differently,” the bishop said. “They told me that they could not run their dioceses without the permanent deacons so when I was appointed to Galloway I decided to bring in the permanent diaconate which I introduced by saying ‘the Church offers this vocation, do we have the right to deny it?’”

With the diocesan celebration of his golden jubilee taking place in autumn to allow for the summer holidays, the quiet family affair on his anniversary gave the opportunity for some quiet reflection. In typical good humour, he said he woke up asking: “God, what should I have been doing all these years that I haven’t been doing?”

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