February 9 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Faith, hope and charity in abundance

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS speaks of a much-loved parishioner, charitable efforts and Jesus as a healer — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

This is a bittersweet week at St Joseph’s. There was a discernible ‘aww’ at Mass, as the name of Nellie McKenna, our oldest parishioner, was read out in the list of those who had died recently. I’ve mentioned Nellie before, and the wonderful care she had been receiving in the Holy Rosary Home, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor. At the ripe old age of 98, it’s remarkable to think that she lived through almost all of those 100 years of state Catholic schooling, which we’re celebrating just now.

I have a tremendous soft spot for Nellie: she’s the only person who has called me ‘darlin’ since my mum died. Whenever I went in to visit her at home, she would go through a litany of salutations, which ranged from the formal to the maternal. And as for the prayers, you could say that I simply joined in her prayers as she prayed constantly—even in her sleep, I think.

Even the last time I saw her, a few days before she died, she made the Sign of the Cross unbidden and clearly prayed with her inner voice, surveying her family gathered around her through weary but loving eyes. She will be sorely missed here in the parish, a tiny but redoubtable figure who never missed Mass until well into her 97th year.

I can picture her sauntering through Paradise, the palm of victory in one hand and a cigarette in the other: she was a living rebuke to those who warn of the dangers of smoking. Once she had alighted from the pensioners’ bus, Nellie always had a quick pre-Mass puff and another at its conclusion. I used to wonder if the Vatican drafted her in for Sistine Chapel chimney duty during conclaves, as she could have helped beef up the smoke for every election from Pope Pius XII to Pope Francis.

Although she had a Faith that could wipe the floor with my own, and a genuine kindliness, I did have one moment of disappointment during my last visit to her. I noticed, among a veritable gallery of family photos, a more recent picture of a beaming Nellie with Bishop John Keenan. It is a lovely photograph, I must say, but I was somewhat upset to find that I had been cropped out of the frame. Despite her other saintly qualities, I think she may have some explaining to do over that one.

As a priest, it is a genuine joy and a privilege—and an increasingly rare one—to celebrate the rites of the Church for someone who so manifestly lived and loved her Faith. All too often nowadays, we preside at the funerals of those ‘whose Faith was known to God alone’ and the expectations of mourners is more influenced by the latest soap opera send-off than what the parish can realistically offer them.

St Joseph’s has taken up an invitation to support a fantastic local initiative—Back Home Boxes. Hot on the heels—if that’s the most elegant and apposite phrase—of the Smalls for All appeal (not to mention the Advent Giving Tree), comes Compassionate Inverclyde’s drive to ensure that no one is discharged from our local hospital alone and without some bits and pieces to get them going.

Each week, in every ward, around six people are sent home to an empty house. This appeal aims to ensure that folk being discharged under those circumstances will have the essentials to hand, even a wee knee blanket to keep them snug and a get-well card made by local school children. It’s a lovely thought and an even lovelier reality. So simple and yet so beneficial to folk who need that extra boost to set them properly on the road to recovery.

I did apologise to the parishioners this weekend, as it is ‘one thing after another’ when it comes to charity, but they are so superbly generous that it’s really their own fault.

Kindness abounds elsewhere, however, especially in Ayrshire. A kind reader from Largs was so upset at the state of the radiator that he dispatched a family member, a painter and decorator to trade, to strip and repaint the central heating carbuncle. I was truly touched by this thoughtfulness.

Added to this, my former seminary rector, Mgr McIntyre, now enjoying his well-deserved retirement in Girvan, dropped me a note to encourage me to keep my chins up. Seeing his elegant script took me back to my salad days in Rome, when I would often find little notes from the rector in my pigeon hole, inviting me to have a chat about purloining another student’s chocolate buttons—sorry, Fr Lappin—or the latest pasquinade which I had affixed to the college notice board. Happy days.

Indeed, that column in which I had sounded off about the radiator—and generally echoed Job’s lament that we heard last Sunday—also prompted another piece of fraternal outreach all the way from the Vatican extraterritorial outpost of Croy.

My confrère in Holy Cross wanted to ensure that my anxiety wasn’t being needlessly stoked by the activation of the boiler’s frost stat. While the rogue boiler has been switching on at all hours, even during balmy daylight hours, I was still grateful for the expression of solicitude.

It just goes to show that people actually do read this nonsense. And that’s quite scary when you think about it.

This Sunday coincides with the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the world day of prayer for the sick. It affords us an opportunity to pray for those who are in need of healing and those dedicated to bringing that healing about. We believe, of course, that God is the ultimate source of healing and so it’s important to pray that our health care professionals may put their gifts at God’s disposal.

I’m always wary of talking about ‘the sick’ as though they are other people, a discrete constituency separated from ‘the healthy.’ The line between these two categories is very porous and we often find ourselves slipping between them at no notice.

And yet it does feel like a very different world, a world of machines, drips, bruises, wristbands and fitful sleep. It can be very disconcerting to suddenly wake up and find that your health, something you may have taken for granted, has left you—and who knows when it will return. More than any other aspect of his ministry, I reckon that’s why Jesus was such a magnet for the crowds—we long to be well, to feel strong and free again.

The demarcation between the sick and the healthy was even more pronounced in his day: lepers were confined to their own society, distant and untouchable. His very act of touching the man in this ­Sunday’s Gospel was as careless as it was caring. But He knew what He was doing. In His desire to heal the sick, He breaches the invisible wall which kept them sealed off from the uncontaminated.

The Church continues to be Christ’s compassionate presence in our world. As they gather for White Masses around the country, pray for our Catholic health workers and all those who work in our hospitals, not least our hospital chaplains and extraordinary ministers who undertake ward visitations (above). They too are doing their bit to ensure that the same Lord can continue to touch us whenever we too find ourselves in that unfamiliar and distressing world.

This is, of course, the last Sunday of Ordinary Time before Lent begins. Unfortunately, as you will already be aware, we have a head-to-head clash between Ash Wednesday and St Valentine’s Day.

Sadly, my proposed sales pitch to Hallmark and M&S has been rebuffed. It seems they felt my ‘meat-free meal deal’ and ‘ash sachet’ wasn’t a seller, and the ‘Turn away from sin and be my Valentine’ cards would be unlikely to fly off the shelves. Their loss, I say.

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