March 17 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


The little exchanges, good and bad, of priestly life

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS reflects on two very different encounters with children, and on the comfort of St Joseph — Fr JOHN BOLLAN

This has been a fairly average day. It began with the funeral of an 89-year-old Daniel O’Donnell fan (who sang us out at the Crematorium—although not in person), followed by a visit to the Primary 4 children in St Joseph’s ahead of their First Confession. One little girl gave me the best summary of the Sacrament I’ve ever encountered. Announcing how much she was looking forward to making her confession, she said: “I mean, I’ll just say it and that’s it out and it’s staying out!” If that’s not a firm purpose of amendment, I don’t know what is.

After a quick bite of lunch, I had confession time with the Sixth Years in St Columba’s High School. As is increasingly common, I ask to see all the students whether they are Catholic or not. That way, I can ‘touch base’ with them all and leave it up to them if they would like to use that opportunity for a Lenten absolution.

I am always heartened by the number of those who do take up the invitation to make a clean breast of things. Regardless of their choice—to confess or simply say ‘hello’—I gave each of them a medal. This is the busiest medal I’ve come across but I think it’s great.

Shaped like a cross, on one side it features the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Heart, St Joseph, the Miraculous Medal and St Christopher. On the other, you will find Our Lady, the Child of Prague, St Anthony and the Marian stemma (again from the Miraculous Medal). By my reckoning, that’s eight medals in one and I’m struggling to think which of the most popular devotions doesn’t get a look-in.

I’m reminded of the ancient Romans, who were, despite being pagan in our eyes, extremely scrupulous and devout by anyone’s standards. When setting up a shrine or addressing a prayer to the gods, they would list them exhaustively, for fear that some deity finding himself or herself left out would take umbrage. They even concluded with a get out clause along the lines of ‘and if there is anyone we have omitted, we invoke them too.’ My little medal feels like the Catholic equivalent of this big tent approach to piety.

I was heartened to see that each medal was accepted and some volunteered its destination: round their neck, in a purse, to be given to a grandparent or a bereaved neighbour. While not a talisman, they are tokens of Faith, hope and, above all, love. It’s good to see them being accepted as such. Sometimes people can be tempted to write off our young folk’s ‘sense of Faith,’ but little exchanges like that give me a boost.


Most of tomorrow will be taken up with safeguarding training at the diocesan offices. Due to the increased scrutiny of the Church’s words and actions in the wake of well publicised failings in this regard, keeping Church personnel and volunteers up to speed with best practice is a non-negotiable reality in parish life. To be honest, this is as aspect of modern life which I do find very dispiriting indeed.

Well and truly gone are the days when the Father Brown actor Alec Guinness’ conversion to Catholicism was hastened by a child mistaking him—dressed as his role required in clerical attire (left)—for a priest and unhesitatingly taking his hand.

The other night I was standing outside the chapel house taking some photos of a stunning moon over the Clyde when some local youths, taking a regular short-cut through the car park of the Church, loudly suggested the ‘creepy guy’ (yours truly) was taking their photographs for unwholesome purposes. That description of me was their direct speech, but I have paraphrased their other rather more picturesque turns of phrase to spare everyone’s blushes. Such, alas, is the shift in the landscape. I only had time for a couple of quick shots before I headed back indoors. I don’t mind admitting that I felt thoroughly intimidated and not a little angry.


Anyway, I don’t wish to dwell on that spot of unpleasantness in what is usually an upbeat tour through parish life. As I write this, it is the fourth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis. He inaugurated his Petrine ministry on the Feast of St Joseph which is, of course, the patronal feast of our little parish.

A year later, our own Bishop John Keenan was consecrated as the fifth Bishop of Paisley. He is spending a part of his third episcopal birthday with us as he comes to celebrate the Sunday morning Mass at St Joseph’s. I’m sure that a good number of our parishioners will want to welcome him on this happy occasion. As the Third Sunday of Lent takes liturgical precedence, the actual Solemnity of St Joseph is translated to the next day.

We will do our best to make it a joyful occasion, even though it sits right in the middle of Lent. The Italians like to mark the saint’s feast with a delicious bun but I’m afraid that our (formerly) resident Italian, Ivana, has gone home to Milan and so it looks as though we will not have any authentic zeppole or bignè di San Giuseppe this year.

Pope Francis is known to have a deep love for St Joseph and is widely credited with making the devotion to ‘sleeping St Joseph’ more widely known. The Holy Father brought with him from home a little statue of our recumbent patron and is said to write down any problems he has on a bit of paper and slips them under the statue to ‘let St Joseph sleep on it.’ Pope Francis says that this way of asking the saint’s help results either in the problem resolving itself or else appearing less overwhelming than it did at first.

I have my own sleeping St Joseph statue which, as you can see, is rather busy. He’s even sleeping on my PPI claim.


While some might take a dim view of the ‘magical’ overtones of this devotion, I am the son of a woman who made even Pope Francis’ devotion to St Joseph seem positively lukewarm. My Mum, herself a Josephine, was the pioneer of the ‘travelling St Joseph.’ Alongside the sleeping variety and the common practice of interring a statue in order to speed the sale of a house, Mum used to wrap a little statue of St Joseph in kitchen roll and place him in her handbag. Towards the end of her life, as she felt increasingly unsteady and anxious about venturing out, this little statue, a gift from her friend Karen in New York, became her constant companion and a source of comfort.


She would have been 86 this coming Tuesday and the fifth anniversary of her death is fast approaching. While still bereft, like my sisters and all our family, I now derive comfort from having that same wee statue.

Now liberated from his cocoon of Plenty (other varieties of kitchen roll are available), he may no longer get as many outings as he once did, but I’d like to think that St Joseph is still keeping an eye out for me, with the occasional little reminder from my Mum.

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