May 12 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


The clothes that make the man and, uh, dog

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS on the battle over Communion dress — Fr JOHN BOLLAN

I’m still struggling to get back into a normal routine after the school trip to Rome, although the three funerals this week should help. In a sense, we’re lucky we got home at all, as I have no idea how the plane managed to take off with the weight of all the holy souvenirs the kids packed into their cases—to say nothing of the Hard Rock Café memorabilia. I made do with some 2018 calendars, some ‘sleeping St Joseph cards’ and a couple of books on Pope Paul VI and a lovely anthology of homilies on the priesthood by Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

I like to hand out Rome calendars as New Year’s gifts, a little reminder of the sunny piazzas of the Eternal City during our dreich winter months. You get all sorts of Roman calendars, of course: Rome in the movies (plenty of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita), Cats of Rome, Pope Francis and, more recently, Gladiators. There is also a ‘Pin-Up Priests’ calendar which was met with some excitement and not a little incredulity from our party. One girl, on catching sight of one on sale, exclaimed, ‘I never knew you got good-looking priests!’ Gee, thanks.

I suspect their disbelief is merited, since the priests who adorn this calendar tend to display the chiselled features of catalogue models rather than the weathered (and leathered) coupons of most parish clergy—my own included.


In fact, priest calendars are a bit of a touchy subject for me. For some years Priests for Scotland, the agency which promotes vocations awareness, produced a series of calendars showing priests from various dioceses engaged in different kinds of apostolate: school, hospital and prison chaplaincy etc.

As I was working at Glasgow University at the time, in the fairly specialised ministry of teaching teachers, I imagined that my phone would be ringing at any moment to arrange a photoshoot. Alas, the call never came and I banged on about it so unrelentingly that the Office staff in our department ended up making my very own calendar—by vandalising an official one.

What this entailed was photocopying pictures of my face and pasting them over the features of each month’s ‘priest in action.’ The effect of this managed to be simultaneously funny and slightly grotesque: my disproportionately large head would have struck terror into any children or frail person actually photographed in the same room with me. I still have the calendar and treasure it as a warning against vanity and touchiness.

Wednesday of this week saw another personal first: the first time I have been a Confirmation sponsor. Obviously, I have been confirmed (with the name Joseph) and, as a priest, I have administered the Sacrament to both children and adults, but I have never before done the ‘hand on the shoulder’ bit.

I’m grateful to have had this honour conferred on me by Joe, a P7 pupil at St Mary’s in Paisley. I’ve known Joe for a few years now and, as well as author of thoughtful email updates on his study of the lives of the saints and his lengthy list of prayer intentions, he bakes exceedingly good cakes.

Each year at the Chrism Mass, which he also serves, I receive the gift of a Simnel cake; if you don’t know the Passiontide symbolism of the Simnel cake, look it up. It’s fascinating as well as delicious. Joe is well known in Paisley circles for his baking, and in the past I’ve also been gifted with a beautifully decorated Tardis cake.

Although St Honoratus is the patron saint of bakers, Joe opted for St Michael the Archangel—and what better saint could you have? My own school’s Confirmations aren’t for a couple of weeks yet, so I’ll be back up at the cathedral on the ‘other side’ of the process. There is, however, a constant link between St Joseph’s and the Confirmations in the person of our Acolyte Matthew who is on hand each evening to ensure that the Sacrament is administered validly.


Speaking of Sacraments, all minds are focused on First Holy Communion which takes place this Sunday. Our P4 children have been diligently prepared by their teacher and they’ve been put through their paces in readiness for the Big Day.

To be honest, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the Bigness of the Day at the expense of the depth of the encounter which is taking place. While I absolutely ‘get’ the need for choreography and rehearsals for the sake of reassuring the children, I feel that we can sometimes overwhelm them.

Thankfully, the turf war over First Communion dress-code was resolved quite some time ago and all the children, boys and girls, look very presentable in their albs and tabards. By doing this, the link with the white Baptismal robe is made much clearer and it means that the boys aren’t stuck with only a slightly adapted version of everyday school wear.

I still wince when I remember the red sash pinned not, as was intended, to my crisp white school shirt, but to me (my poor Mother was very flustered that morning and I was in a strop even before the piercing incident). As a consequence, my face is tripping me in virtually every photograph taken that day—and thereafter, come to think of it: maybe another reason why I never got the calendar gig.

Although we have won the battle over the children’s dress, there is still some way to go before we can claim victory with regard to some of the grown-ups. While we pray for fine weather for the sake of the First Communicants, I’m occasionally fearful that azure skies lead inevitably to less appropriate costume choices among the adults.

Skimpy outfits, ample décolletage and less than appropriate body art more often gives rise to trauma-related flashbacks than to temptation. What is seen cannot be unseen.

The morning of First Communion usually witnesses my Jekyll-like transformation from mild-mannered Fr John to my less indulgent ‘altar-ego.’ I declare St Joseph’s a no-go area for chat, gum, mobile phones and energy drinks—all of which are only too apparent right up until the Mass begins.

I appreciate, of course, that the majority of those attending this joyful occasion will not have been practicing regularly and it’s important to be welcoming. But there’s a difference between making people feel welcome and presiding over a circus of chattering and mastication to the accompaniment of mobile ringtones.

Sometimes it’s necessary to say: “Look, this is important. This place is where these children are going to be receiving Jesus for the first time in this great Sacrament of his love. Our children learn to revere what we consider special, to love what we love. Show that reverence now. Teach them that lesson.” Most times the gentle but firm reminder works. I haven’t been punched. Not so far, at least.


Right, as the sun is still unaccountably shining, I’m going to take Jasmine for a walk to meet the kids as they come out of school and then head down to see Deacon Paul. Paul could do with any extra prayers you have going, please. I think Jasmine is still in a bit of a huff after my last stint of abandoning her, even though she was in good hands.

My sister Helen took her for a few days and she loves spending time there, especially with my niece Jennifer, whom she adores. In fact, that may be the problem: maybe she just didn’t want to come back at all. After all, Helen had her in a bandana and that may have turned her head a little.

I might ask the sewing bee to rustle her up a white lacy bandana for the First Communions: £5 for a photo with the parish dug, all proceeds going to an as-yet undisclosed charity.

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