September 29 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Our new priests are top of the class

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS takes a trip to a high school awards ceremony with a fellow graduate — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

One of last week’s highlights was the annual senior awards ceremony at St Columba’s High School (it used to be called ‘prize-giving’ in my young days but, as the kids are quick to point out, in my younger days computers were the size of fridges). I usually help with the distribution of the prizes, but this year I was asked to act as master of ceremonies.

In another throwback to my own schooldays at St Columba’s, I always wear academic dress to the award ceremony, even though I have to set my face against insults and derision from some of the clergy in attendance. ‘Here comes Pooh-Bah,’ one local monsignor was heard to remark as I made my entrance through a billow of dry ice and a flicker of strobe lights.

Back in the day, all the platform party wore academic dress and I always remember that was my first sense of a formal continuity between the world of school and the world of university to which we were taught to aspire.

There was still a handful of teachers who clung doggedly to their gowns for daily use, most of which served only to transport clouds of chalk dust from one place to another and, with the demise of corporal punishment, could no longer be justified for the concealment of the strap.

When the 1980s, sometimes called ‘the decade fashion forgot,’ hit our schools, teachers seemed keen to ­abandon the fusty trappings of academia for more modern attire.

I, for one, wouldn’t mind if teachers went back to wearing gowns. I can tell you one thing: the kids themselves wouldn’t bat an eyelid, having grown up following the adventures of Harry Potter and his begowned professors at Hogwarts. Indeed, many kids probably wonder why their teachers aren’t dressed properly nowadays.

My own insistence on wearing my PhD gown is a little more prosaic. Obviously, while I was teaching at Glasgow University, I was required to attend a variety of academic occasions at which the wearing of gown and hood was de rigeur.

So, rather than shelling out for the hire of the dress, I went ahead and bought it. Since relocating from the ivory towers of the West End of Glasgow to my machine gun turret overlooking south west Greenock, it has to be said that events warranting (or even permitting) the wearing of full academic dress are less plentiful.

Now, whenever any opportunity— like the award ceremony—presents itself, I am unabashedly Dr Bollan once again. As I informed the audience at the awards last week, I even wore it to the opening of the new Marks & Spencer store in Port Glasgow. They all laughed heartily, little realising that I wasn’t joking: you can take the boy out of the uni…

There were two aspects of the awards ceremony which brought me both pride and pleasure. The first was welcoming Fr Jonathan Whitworth back to the school to help distribute the prizes. Fr Jonathan, like myself, is an alumnus of St Columba’s (as I mentioned in a previous column, our school has provided more priests for Paisley Diocese than any other) and he had some eminently wise and encouraging words for those who were about to step up and take a bow.

The other touching thing was seeing the students themselves as they came up to receive their prizes. All of them had to work hard to achieve, but more than a few had to overcome significant personal challenges along the way: illness, bereavement, family upheavals.

No one would ever really know, as they made their way onto the stage, that the journey to that point had been far from smooth. Although it sounds a glib cliché, they are a credit to the school, their families and, of course, themselves.

Fr Jonathan will be waiting on a phone call from the bishop’s office sometime soon, to receive word of his first appointment. This will be an exciting time for him and all the newly-minted priests in this year’s (comparatively) bumper crop of ordinations, as they wait for news of their first parishes or prepare to take up residence in them.

I joked with the audience that Fr Jonathan still had that ‘new priest smell,’ a bit like a new car (although with base notes of Chrism). In a sense, though, there is something wonderful about a young priest at the beginning of his ministry: an enthusiasm and energy which is itself a boost to those he comes to serve and minister alongside.

The first months of priestly ministry are especially important: they embed the new priest in his community and also cut the umbilical cord from the rhythms and routines of the seminary environment which have nurtured him.

They also help, whenever necessary, to assist in the removal of any residual ‘poles up the backside’ (if you’ll pardon my pastoral patois) which can lead to a less-than-smooth transition to the realities of parish life.

Although they’ll have had glimpses into parish life while on placement, this is where they can start to get a feel for priesthood ‘in actuality.’ This is where they’ll come to a deeper understanding of their own shortcomings, and, hopefully, develop a suitable manner for dealing with other people’s ­shortcomings. If it all comes together, under the supportive mentorship of a kindly parish priest, then being in your first parish should be among the happiest days of your life. It certainly was for me, Deo Gratias.

One grace which ordination does not confer, unless you’re Padre Pio, is the gift of bi-location, or being in two places at the one time. Not being endowed with this gift, the award ceremony meant that Fr Jonathan and I had to forego the bishop’s invitation to attend vespers at St Mirin’s Cathedral and witness the formal presentation of his coat of arms.

This would have been a lovely occasion, not only for a closer look at the arms themselves, but also to hear the sermon delivered by Provost Monaghan.

Some might roll their eyes at the very idea of bishops ‘bearing’ arms, but logos are no less important now than they were in the Middle Ages—arguably more so. A coat of arms allows a bishop to say: “This is who I am. This is what is important to me and who I aspire to be, with God’s help.”

Indeed, I’ve often found it a worthwhile exercise with children, especially in their Confirmation year when they’re on the cusp of moving up to ‘the Big School,’ to devise their own coat of arms. The process of choosing symbols and words which express their hopes and dreams is a fruitful one for many.

I don’t know what I’d put on my coat of arms, should Her Majesty wish to confer one on me: crossed Daleks and a Cocker Spaniel rampant? I do know which quote from scripture I would choose, however: the phrase I inscribed on the front page of volume III of my breviary as a young seminarian. It’s a line from the Psalms, Psalm 118:32 to be precise: “dilatasti cor meum.” It literally means ‘you have made my heart bigger,’ but our liturgical translation renders it ‘you give freedom to my heart.’ And I suppose that’s what a ‘free heart’ is: one which has room enough for everyone.

Speaking of quotes from the Psalms, although Fr Whitworth and I missed out on the armorial bash in Paisley, we were presented with our own ‘prizes’ at the conclusion of the award ceremony: a paperweight with the date and the school motto inscribed on it.

The motto, familiar to all Old Columbans, comes from Psalm 138:10 and affirms ‘tenebit me dextera tua’— ‘your right hand will uphold me.’

Although the paperweight has already disappeared into the post-Apocalyptic chaos of my desk, it was a touching reminder not only of times past, but of the loving hand of providence at work today—and tomorrow. And that’s something which every priest—new and not so new – relies upon.

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