May 19 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


The tricky line a priest must walk in a new parish

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS on the need to have a strong backbone — By Fr JOHN BOLLAN

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum—I bring you tidings of great joy: we have no funerals. Yes, for the first time since January, we have a clear week without a Requiem Mass. To be honest, I can’t quite believe it and have to keep checking my diary to be sure. I do have an interment of ashes at the cemetery on Thursday afternoon, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

First Holy Communion went well on Sunday. The children were exemplary in their devotion and reverence and, I’m glad to say, most of the adults were inspired to follow their example. This decorum also extended to the dress code and, although the sunny skies confounded the forecast, there were more halter necks than crop tops on display. Next year we go for mantillas!

I was grateful to Pope Francis for giving the Church two new saints, St Francisco and St Jacinta, just the day before. I was able to tell the boys and girls about the shepherd children receiving Holy Communion from the hands of an angel and of the intense love which St Francisco in particular had for ‘the hidden Jesus.’ He would forego school, instead spending hours in Church, ‘couried in’ beside the tabernacle.

Speaking of this simple love for the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, I was asked a question by a relative of one of our First Communicants. It’s a fair enough question, given that we’re in the midst of the First Holy Communion season and I thought I would share it here.

This person had recently attended another family First Communion in another diocese and had liked the way the priest in that parish had the children seated on the sanctuary, facing the congregation. Given that we have a relatively small class of P4 children, why didn’t we do the same?

Well, here’s my answer—and apologies in advance to anyone who thinks differently. Firstly, my understanding of the liturgy of the Eucharist is such that the sanctuary is a sacred space, not a stage. Only those exercising a ministry should be ‘on it.’ While First Holy Communion is an exceptional celebration, it doesn’t warrant suspending this principle. Lex orandi, lex credendi: as we worship, so we believe. That’s one reason.


Secondly, there’s the question of the appropriateness of the children being seated with their backs to the tabernacle, the altar, the celebrant or all three.

This is not merely a small point of etiquette, although there is an element of good manners involved: no guest sits with their back to their host—and the Host here is no exception. I’ve heard arguments adduced from the positioning of the apostles at the Last Supper and so on, but they don’t convince me.

Nowadays we don’t celebrate the Eucharist reclining on couches (whether we ever did is a moot point), so I’m not persuaded that the ‘normal’ orientation of the liturgy needs improving on these occasions, however special.

But for me the real clincher arguments are practical, rather than theological, and I make them with my teacher’s hat on (rather than my parish priest’s one). When it comes to the ‘Big Day,’ the one thing you want to ensure for the sake of the children is that disruption and distraction are minimised, if not avoided altogether.

Having the children seated in the sanctuary disrupts their conventional experience of the Mass: they have even more choreography to get a handle on (and every step and gestures requires a huge effort of concentration).

It also causes them to face out at a sea of other faces—no doubt beaming with pride —but it makes them the focus, rather than the mystery into which they are being drawn in a wonderfully new way. As a result, they are more likely to be disrupted by what is going on in front of them or, heaven forfend, their occasional lapses of attention are all too apparent to the rest of the congregation.

In other words, I feel that seating the children in this arrangement is about display rather than intimacy. It has little to do with St Francisco’s desire to be close to the hidden Jesus.


Now I know that passionate proponents of this practice will be thoroughly cheesed off at my saying this: after all, who cares what I think? I understand the reasons which are offered for it, and in the past I’ve gone along with it myself as it’s been ‘the done thing,’ but I’ve looked at this issue from all sides and no amount of special pleading will budge me on this one.

Besides, I’m in the fortunate position as a parish priest to have an inherited what I— and the Church—regard as best (and proper) practice. For me personally, a more pressing question is if I were to inherit a different situation would I have the courage to change it? This goes beyond First Communion seating and touches upon everything I am about as a pastor.

We are rightly wary of ecclesiastical martinets who swoop in to a parish as though it’s their own personal fiefdom—indeed Pope Francis excoriates them regularly—but there’s a risk in the opposite extreme. It was, I think, St Philip Neri who said that Christians need two kinds of bone: a funny bone and a back bone. Now, my funny bone is in good working order. My bishop recently paid me what was probably a compliment in saying that ‘some priests find it hard to be funny; Fr John finds it hard to be serious.’

I’m not sure about my backbone, though. I hate conflict and avoid it whenever possible. When I encounter the little turf wars and ‘nose disjointings’ which are part and parcel of every parish—even here on Walton’s’ Mountain—I tend to take the path of least resistance.

But I’m aware that decisions made ‘for the sake of a quiet life’ are seldom the right ones and I don’t think the Gospel is terribly keen on avoiding upsetting anyone for the sake of being liked. And that’s the hard bit: we do so love to be loved.

Anyway, that’s enough controversy for one week. I have to see a man about a leaky roof (where did the sun go?) and arrange to visit my ‘sick communions.’

It’s been six weeks since I’ve been round them so I’ll have to bring them a peace offering as well as the Blessed Sacrament. Sadly, Deacon Paul’s condition has taken a turn for the worse, and a hospital bed has been set up at home so he can receive palliative care from our local hospice.

I know I have regularly been asking your prayers for his recovery, but now I ask you to redouble them for Paul, his wife and his family as they make this journey together. There is a distinct heaviness of heart about the parish, especially among our daily Mass-goers among whom Paul ministered diligently for the past eight years.

He was so determined to be present for the First Communions last weekend but, alas, that was one personal goal he would not realise. But there have been so many obstacles which he did overcome, that this was no defeat.

I also received a lovely email from Joe, the young baker to whom I was Confirmation sponsor last week. As well as updating me on his recently received gifts (both those of the Holy Spirit and the odd Pokémon related one), he also informed me that he was praying for a former student of his Mum who is currently missing.

That’s a cheering reminder that, despite the menace of cyber-attacks, it’s good to live in a world which is ever more inter-connected. But for us as Catholics, that’s hardly a recent innovation: we call it the Communion of Saints.

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