November 10 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Take time to remember and reflect

Personal and historic events can give us a fresh outlook THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS explains —By FR JOHN BOLLAN

Let me begin by saying just how flabbergasted I’ve been by the response to last week’s column. Both at Maureen’s funeral and over the weekend, by letter, phone call and Parish Facebook or Twitter messages, I’ve received more than a hundred expressions of thanks or appreciation. Of course, what these people were really grateful for was the opportunity to have known Maureen and to have been touched her example of compassion and courtesy.

For someone with so few surviving relatives, the cathedral was full of, well, I’m not sure if ‘mourners’ is the right word, since there was a palpable air of joy above the inevitable sadness. Monsignor Tormey’s well-chosen words were upstaged by Maureen herself, who penned a message of thanks for all the kindnesses she had received. She would have been very moved to see the bishop, 12 priests and two deacons in attendance, to say nothing of the many good friends she had made over the years.

It was a lovely way to begin this rather sombre month. On Thursday of this week, we mark the 40th anniversary of my own father’s death. It’s hard to imagine that so many years have passed since that bolt from the blue turned all our lives upside down. Oddly enough, the other night I decided to watch Abigail’s Party, —Mike Leigh’s play which last week marked its 40th anniversary —for the very first time.

I enjoyed the horrendously awkward interactions between the characters and loved spotting all those ‘period’ features, like the onyx lighters and ashtrays everyone seemed to have back then. But I was well and truly caught out by the ending which, quite frankly, occasioned some traumatic flashbacks to what happened in my own home barely a week after the original transmission.

The formal Remembrance season also reaches its climax this week with Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. Much of the focus this year has been on the centenary of Passchendaele, the third Battle of Ypres. Tired of losing my poppy, I opted this year for a Passchendaele poppy pin which is made from melted down bullets from the battleground and also contains some soil from the same ‘killing fields.’ Each pin commemorates an individual fallen soldier: mine recalls the sacrifice of Private J Turner of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who died on October 4, 1917.

I know that some regard poppy-wearing and the memorialising of war (above) to be something of a minefield (no pun intended). But I am unpersuaded by those who suggest it glorifies conflict or is a front for political positions incompatible with the Catholic Faith. On the contrary, as the little pin I’m currently wearing demonstrates, it expresses the hope that the weapons of death will be refashioned into something expressive of love and solidarity —a messianic aspiration if ever there was one.

We should also not overlook the fact that Catholics shed their blood in these wars, many of them making the ultimate sacrifice. James Black, the first Bishop of Paisley, was injured in the second Battle of the Somme in 1918 and was troubled by his wound for the rest of his life. My own great-uncle, Private Harry Bollan of the Highland Light Infantry, was killed in the Battle of Givenchy in December 1917. Indeed, as I make my way through the cemetery on my morning stroll with Jasmine, besides the war memorial there, you can see several armed forces headstones from both world wars and from subsequent conflicts. We live surrounded by the fallen.

Speaking of the cemetery and headstones, I was recently treated to a beautiful early morning display courtesy of the rising sun.

Now that the clocks have gone back, I routinely begin this walk in darkness and get to see the sun come up—if the usual cloud covering permits it, of course. On All Souls day, I had just reached the brow of the hill where my own parents and extended family are buried, when the sun happened to hit the south-facing tombstones in such a way that the letters on the stones were brightly illuminated. These names, so often unreadable in shadow, now stood out—a bit like God’s handiwork in that Biblical blockbuster The Ten Commandments.

That, to me at least, was something of an All Souls epiphany: a momentary gleam which made the names and relationships of these men, woman and children shine with the light of the sun itself. Alas, my own parents’ grave faces the other way, but even so, it was a beautiful sight to behold on that crisp morning.

This coming week we have our own parish Mass of Remembrance. Like many other parishes, we celebrate an annual Mass to pray for those who have died in the past 12 months and for the bereaved in our midst. A candle is lit for each soul as their name is read aloud: the families are invited to take the candle home afterwards and continue to use it as a focus for their own prayer in this month of the Holy Souls.

But let’s not forget that St Joseph’s is a parish for the living! We had a Baptism and a wedding over the weekend and, even though the bride and groom are not quite in the first bloom of youth, it was a joy to see them gathered with their children, grandchildren and other relatives and friends to add a little sparkle to the 5th of November.

I’ve been too busy catching up with 1970s comedy classics to follow any of the recent dramatisation of the Gunpowder Plot (called, imaginatively enough, Gunpowder. From what I can gather, it doesn’t hold back from portraying some of the horrific treatment which was meted out, not just to the conspirators, but to other Catholics caught up in the wake of the plot.

I have seen a little of a drama-documentary about Elizabeth I’s spymasters, principally William and Robert Cecil. This serves of a reminder of the febrile atmosphere of late Tudor politics, when an increasingly isolated England felt itself under unrelenting threat from Catholic Europe.

Oddly enough, my friend is the Rector of the Church of England Parish, St Martin’s Stamford Baron where the Cecil family tombs are located. I enjoy ribbing him about living off the proceeds of money and land expropriated by Elizabeth’s principal henchmen. So far, we haven’t come to blows, but I won’t push my luck on that front!

The local parish priests were treated to a slice or two of pizza courtesy of St Columba’s High School on Monday, as we touched base with our parishioners who are undertaking the Caritas Award next year. They have volunteered for a range of services around the parish and it’s important that we try to harness their enthusiasm in a way which nor only benefits us this year, but which can be sustained in future, long after they have received their medal and certificate.

This is also our goal with the junior equivalent, the Pope Francis Faith Award, which is well underway in the primary school. Last week I was interviewed by the boys and girls of Primary 6 and I must say their questions were very insightful. I had been expecting: ‘What’s your favourite football team?’ (AS Roma), ‘What’s your favourite food?’ (pizza or Chinese) or ‘How much does a priest earn?’ (the little known fourth secret of Fatima). Instead I was asked about what my vocation ‘felt’ like, what the hardest and most rewarding parts of being a priest are and do I think I’ll ever be Pope? I must say I laughed out loud at that one.

Some of the kids seemed to think that ascending the throne of Peter was pretty much like any other path of career progression. When I advised them that it wasn’t quite like that, one pressed me on the point: “So you wouldn’t be up for it?” “No,” I replied, “And I don’t think God would be either.”

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