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Altar servers Cade Foster, Reed Robinson, Ryan Hinlo and Matthew Staley sit on a bench waiting for students to arrive for a Mass for Life Jan. 25 at Sagrado Corazon at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Nashville, Tenn. Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville celebrated Mass for about 450 high school students, college students and their chaperones who were preparing to travel to Washington to take part in the annual March for Life Jan. 27. The four altar servers were going with the group to the nation's capital. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

A shortage of servers can’t be ignored

This week THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS seeks to solve several knotty problems before going on holiday - Fr John Bollan

The Greenock Fair fortnight arrived, as it invariably does, with the falling of a gentle rain (alternating with bursts of slightly heavier precipitation). I remember as a child seeing the crowds of sodden holidaymakers, waiting in the rain for their buses to whisk them off to Butlins, Blackpool or some such exotic destination. There was always a curious mix of sadness and hope in their eyes as they waited to be herded along in the queue, like new arrivals at Ellis Island. Of course, I was no stranger to Butlins myself in those heady days of the Beachcomber Bar and Sunday Mass in the Theatre, with all those well-drilled Catholics genuflecting as they entered the rows (as always, filling up from the back).

Nowadays, Butlins has gone, but Fair weekend travel misery endures. My niece’s flight to America was cancelled on Sunday morning and she had to spend the first day of her week’s holiday either waiting about in the airport or the adjoining hotel. And, unlike the Butlins of old, there’s no erupting volcano in the Beachcomber Bar to mesmerise you every half hour.

My own holiday is still a few weeks away, so I find myself with the rare luxury of wondering ‘what to do today with no schools to visit?’ Of course, there is plenty to do. Neglected house visits and ‘sick communions’ can be attended to more diligently for a start. It’s also that period where I find myself making up a list of jobs that need to be done. These aren’t just bits of maintenance of the fabric of the Church (the thing I enjoy least about being a parish priest) but also pastoral tasks which need attended to.


I need to recruit new altar servers, for a start: we are down to four who are under the age of 18. It’s getting harder and harder to enlist and retain new servers (or it is here, at least). There is a perception that serving Mass is ‘not cool’. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, that peer pressure would have been the motivating factor in teenage servers hanging up their albs or cottas. Now, however, it’s also a cause of dissuasion for primary school age kids even starting to serve in the first place. I must admit I find that worrying. Not so much in the sense that vocations arise from altar service (although they do, I was never an altar boy), but in the perception that even attending Church undermines a child’s ‘credibility’ in their friends’ eyes.

Of course, recruitment of altar servers becomes problematic during the school holidays, but I’ll try to keep it on the radar for after the summer. It would be good to tie it in with the Pope Francis Faith Award, which we really need to get on board with round here.

Another thing I would like to get done is to do something more systematic to support bereaved parishioners. Other than a Mass of remembrance in November to which recently bereaved families are invited, we don’t really do anything to journey alongside those coming to terms with the loss of a loved one. Of course, not everyone wants help in a formal way and the thought of coming to a ‘group’ might be the last thing they would want, but I just feel that something is needed.


There is a group of sorts that meets in the nearby Westburn Church, but I’m not sure if there is a similar group that could provide help and support with a distinctly Catholic inflection. As I think I mentioned in a previous dispatch, I feel guilty about the gap in provision for the after-care of the bereaved. Before the funeral, there is plenty of contact and, of course, on the day itself. But how often have I taken leave of a family with the promise to look in on them, only to have that promised ‘bumped’ by the next bereavement and subsequently pushed further down the mental to-do list by the one after that?

And then there’s the sound of music. Or the lack of it. The sole musical accompaniment at St Joseph’s is the Music Group, a trusty band of stalwarts who have been playing at the Sunday morning Mass since, well, since most of us can remember. With the group on holiday for the school recess, we now have no music at any of the Masses – other than the hymns led by yours truly.

Don’t get me wrong, while I’m no Harry Secombe or Daniel O’Donnell, I’m reckoned to have a fairly good voice and more than capable of carrying a tune. The only challenge is deciding which tune I’m carrying and where.

Whenever unaccompanied, which is the case at both the weekend evening Masses, there can be a bit of a tense moment at the start of a hymn as the congregation hang back until I’ve settled on a melody. It’s a bit like watching a goose take off (both in terms of the motion and the noise), whereby an inelegant beginning eventually gives way to something more graceful.

There has been the odd occasion when I’ve had to stop, apologise and start again as the sounds emanating from my diaphragm bear little or no resemblance to any known rendition of that hymn. And even when the notes are in the correct order, sometimes the pitch is my undoing. If I get I am the Bread of Life wrong, the falsetto chorus tends to be drowned out by the sirens of a fleet of ambulances summoned to provide life-saving oxygen to the people of God.

Ideally, I would love to have an organist to accompany the hymns at the other Masses, but organists are becoming rarer than hens’ teeth these days. The one organist we did for a while sadly injured her hand and has had to give up playing on doctor’s orders. Another talented young musician suggested recording digital versions of hymns that I could play on my phone, even doing a demo for me, but that fell between the cracks of my consciousness. Besides, knowing my luck, there would be a glitch between the track listing for the Mass and my own music library, resulting in Money, Money, Money coming on during the Offertory instead of Fill my House. Come to think of it, that might go down well with some sections of the congregation. Who knows, I might strike out with own ABBA, Father! Mass setting.


Indeed, I had a conversation with a former parishioner of mine (‘former’ in the sense that I left their parish, not the other way around) and she was wondering if there was any mileage in advertising music-free Eucharists for those who preferred a ‘wee quiet Mass’. It would certainly get round my lack of an organist, but I’m not entirely sure if I’d want St Joseph’s to be the hub parish for the strong, silent Catholics of Inverclyde.

That said, having one Mass for those who genuinely don’t enjoy singing might be an idea. But I’d say we can’t go too far down the road of niche liturgies: before you know it, we’d be having ‘Mass for teens who refuse to say the Creed’ or liturgies of the word for those who are so desperate to read the Sunday papers that they surreptitiously do it during the Mass. But not so surreptitiously that I don’t notice them doing it.

One time when I felt brave enough to chin someone about that very same distracting habit, asking if there was anything good in that day’s paper, bold as brass he proceeded to tell me the highlights of his perusal of the Sunday red tops! Naturally, if it had been the Scottish Catholic Observer, I wouldn’t have minded at all…


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