February 10 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Many Catholics are unclear on Church teaching

This week, THE THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS says we can often flounder when put on the spot over what the Church teaches and why — By Fr JOHN BOLLAN

I BEGIN with an apology. People who know me understand that I do most things with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek: I find a light touch is often the best way to deal with life. Hopefully regular readers of the SCO back page will also have arrived at a sense of, shall we say, the whimsical in this column. For example, most of my senior citizens haven’t been finger-printed by the police (although one or two tell me they have). When you’re accustomed to uttering light-hearted, throwaway lines, you still have to be careful how they are picked up. Two weeks ago, I mentioned that my chauffeur and parish factotum, Jim, had a Bene Merenti medal in the post.

I thought no more about it until I was asked, by another parishioner, when Jim was getting his medal. Was the Bishop coming? If so, we’d need to get a spread organised.

It was only then that I realised that my glib turn of phrase, the ecclesiastical equivalent of ‘the cheque’s in the post,’ had been taken seriously. Apparently, Jim himself had been asking folk what it was and been told that it was like a knighthood: sure enough, the parish computer revealed that a search had been made for ‘papal knighthood’ and Jim had lately been using uncharacteristic words such as ‘epaulette.’

Clearly this was a throwaway remark which had grown arms and legs. Telling someone they are getting a medal must be a great feeling (one which I’ve yet to experience) but, let me assure you, breaking the news to someone that they aren’t getting a gong is far from pleasant.

There is a school of thought which considers it invidious to bestow any sort of honours related to Church membership or service, but I think there are people whose contribution to parish life is above and beyond the call of duty. Jim is one such person and I could, off the top of my head, think of another dozen or so who also fit that description. Every parish has them, I think, and we should cherish them. I toyed with the idea of making up a ‘Jimmymerenti’ certificate but that might also fall into the category of light-hearted banter which gets mangled in the delivery.


My attempts to shift some of my post-Christmas Malteser gut have been frustrated somewhat by another member of the parish team, my pastoral assistant Margaret. She returned from a day in Edinburgh with a selection of Sicilian arancini: deep fried savoury rice balls which are as delicious as they are filling. Let’s just say that I’ve avoided the scales of justice for the past few days. Not only does she work wonders with visits to the housebound, organise rotas and parish pilgrimages, Margaret does a mean antipasto as well.

I am, as you can see, very lucky to have such people about me in St Joseph’s: they have been especially helpful in taking up some of the slack created by Deacon Paul’s unavoidable withdrawal from parish duties (please keep up the prayers on that front, dear reader).

On Wednesday of last week, I hosted the first meeting of a working group on Lay Formation in the diocese. This small group has been tasked, along with a number of others, with translating the charter principles which emerged from our recent Diocesan Synod into some sort of practical actions which can be implemented at parish and deanery level.

The vision of the Synod was very much about waking ‘the sleeping giant’ of the laity. Not just the band of the Bene Merenti, if I may use that term, but the rest of the congregation which turns up faithfully at Mass each week. They are our means of reaching out to the ‘unchurched’ and the ‘dechurched,’ frontline witnesses in the new evangelisation called for by St John Paul II and his papal successors.

What came across in the deliberations of the Synod members was the need for an enhanced catechetical, spiritual and pastoral formation of our lay men and women. People around my age, if they still attend Church at all, are generally part of a doctrinally malnourished generation. The gap between the shelving of the catechism in schools and the introduction of properly qualified Religious Education specialists and a robust curriculum has left vast swathes of Catholics uncertain about what the Church teaches and why.

So, when these good and committed Catholics are put on the spot and asked to give an account of their Faith or a justification of this or that element of Church teaching, they often flounder. It is easier to keep your head down, to say nothing. It is precisely this challenge which our Synod group seeks to address.


Of course, there is no better time to celebrate the strides which have been made in recent years in school catechesis and spiritual formation than now, the beginning of Catholic Education Week.

Much of my life has been spent in educational contexts, as a pupil and a teacher, as a chaplain and as an RE adviser: I take great pride in the excellent work which goes on in Catholic schools throughout the country, not least in my own local schools. I have seen for myself just how much hard work goes in to making our schools effective communities of Faith and learning.

I’m very fortunate to have some excellent teachers and support staff to work with in both my primary and high schools. But I’m also very conscious of the fact that the majority of teachers there also belong to the same ‘orphaned’ generation as myself: there is a lot of work to be done to support them in strengthening their grasp of the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of Faith.

Again, of course, it’s another of those situations where I perceive a need but get both daunted and sidetracked on the road to actually doing something. Thankfully our Church’s own educational support networks are trying to made inroads here as well.

I’m sure that your parish schools will have a somewhat higher profile this weekend, with students and staff playing a prominent role in the liturgy. Rather than being a ‘one off,’ as some might wryly observe, this is an expression of the kind of work and commitment that goes on in schools all the time.

‘Raising attainment’ is certainly a big thing in our schools just now: I like to remind people that the Latin word which

gives us ‘attainment’ is essentially about ‘touch.’ No matter what glittering prizes are on offer, be they academic grades or gongs for long service, what matters in every Catholic parish and school is not what we get but who we touch—and that should always be Christ.

And the fall-out can be terrible: in one of my previous postings, there was a gentleman who refused to make eye contact with me after I omitted his dear wife’s anniversary. The fault on my part was a genuine mistake but no amount of apology could restore me to his friendship thereafter. From that moment to the day I left, he looked down or past me.

I realise that ‘putting in’ an anniversary is as much a part of managing the grief process as it is an expression of Faith, but it’s unfortunate when the hurt of a missed anniversary turns someone completely off their priest.

So, this is a plea for a little tolerance of your all too fallible clergy: if you don’t hear a loved one prayed for or see their name in the bulletin, a gentle reminder to your priest should suffice.

I’m sure he’ll be as sorry about the omission as you are and will ensure that it’s looked after promptly: the prayers of the parish will be asked, the Mass offered.


My week on call with the hospital phone concluded on Monday morning and, for once, sick calls from the parish outnumbered those from the hospital itself. In fact, at one point, I was concerned that the phone was broken and called it myself from my mobile. It did kick into life at 4am on Saturday morning and again on the Sunday afternoon but, all in all, it was my quietest week so far.

After the lunchtime Mass on Tuesday I had pizza with the Sixth Year Caritas students in St Columba’s. We were joined by the other local priests and this gave us an opportunity to check in with those who are rendering service to our parishes in pursuit of this award which continues the spirit of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Scotland in 2010. There he invited our young people to put their gifts at the service of God and the Church and, since then, thousands have responded to that call to be ‘saints of the 21st century.’ This is very much in line with Our Lord’s words in this Sunday’s Gospel, where the call to be salt and light is put before us all.

Once again, we have a good crop of young people from both St Columba’s and Notre Dame high schools involved in the Caritas programme and doing their bit for St Joseph’s.

Keeping in touch, however, is sometimes difficult and you have to resort to social media: it’s often easier to get them on the Caritas Facebook page or on Twitter than grabbing them after Mass. Having said that, social media has its pitfalls.

My latest follower on Twitter is none other than ‘Death’: this may be due to the number of photographs I post from the cemetery during my morning walks with Jasmine. Still, a follower is a follower after all. But if I’m not here next week, you’ll know what has happened. I just hope someone remembers my anniversary..


PHOTO: Fr Bollan with pilgrims in St Peter’s Square


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