February 23 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Welcoming the new and old during Lent

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS stumbles through the Rite of Election and gets a blast from the past — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I love Lent. Believe it or not, I really do: more so than Advent, it’s the period of spiritual preparation and activity which doesn’t get overshadowed —and ultimately swallowed up —by the consumer festival at the end of it. The ancient origins of the season can still be discerned in the prayers and the liturgies which pave the way to Easter.

One easily overlooked practice is the Prayer over the People before the dismissal at Mass. Each day of Lent has its own special blessing and, as one parishioner remarked, it’s lovely to feel extra blessed at this time. Thinking back to when I was ordained a deacon, the thing I really looked forward to more than anything else was being able to bless people. Yes, it was nice to be empowered to celebrate Baptisms and witness marriages (and all those additional bits of diaconal ministry), but I just liked the idea of being able to pronounce a word of blessing over someone. I used to try it out in front of the mirror.

Thanks to Nicola in the Scottish Catholic Media Office, I was recently sent a reminder of my diaconate ordination in the form of half a dozen black-and-white photos of that big day in Rome.

Although I have colour pictures of the ordination, almost identical shots in fact, seeing these ‘new-old’ photographs seemed to capture something the others did not. Why the media office should have had these at all is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps they were on file with a view to circulating to Interpol.

It’s lovely to see my mum in these pictures, although remarkable to see how she went from being the somewhat plump lady she was in those photos to the svelte version she would become towards the end of her life nearly 20 years later.

Or perhaps the explanation is staring you in my face. It may be that, using some telepathic or ‘chunkypathic’ powers, she managed to donate those pounds to me, as I now look like the man who ate the fresh-faced young deacon at her side.

I became more aware of this transformation just a couple of weeks ago as I had my passport renewed. Since they’re so particular nowadays about what constitutes an acceptable image, I took the advice of the lady in the post office to let her take my mugshot.

We no longer have discreet photobooths in the PO in Greenock, but I was still expecting to be ushered into a side room for a little privacy. Alas, it was not to be. “Where do you want me?” I asked.

“Over by the checkout,’ came the terse reply.

‘Over by the checkout’ is, in fact, a pale roller-blind screen which drops down over a shelf of beers and ciders (of varying potency).

So, I was positioned against this makeshift backdrop and warned not to smile. I explained that this might be a little difficult as I was directly facing another shelf of wines (of varying potency) and this might elicit an involuntary response of facial exuberance.

Thankfully, she modelled what ‘not smiling for your passport’ looks like and I simply copied her. The resulting image is sober, fuller in the face and, well, decidedly care-worn. I used to resemble the young Luke Skywalker, but now I look more like the ‘old’ Jedi. But hats off to Her Majesty’s Passport Office who processed my unsmiling ‘coupon’ in five working days—and that wasn’t even fast-tracked.

Attentive readers of this column will recall that I was a little under the weather last week, but still hopeful of a recovery for the Rite of Election in the cathedral.

The return to form came just in time, but the gremlins were still out to ensure that I might as well have just stayed in bed. For a start, traffic on the M8 was at a standstill: despite leaving with plenty of time, as soon as I hit the Erskine Bridge traffic, everything was gridlocked. As the moments ticked past, I began to panic. If I did make it, it would be with minutes to spare.

By the time I finally got into the cathedral, there was a scene of some confusion as, apparently, I was meant to have been there for ages, clipboard in hand, ushering folk into their assigned (and clearly marked) seats.

Thankfully, some expert ‘old hands’ were present to take charge and get us back on track. Thereafter, things went mostly according to plan. I say ‘mostly,’ since the pen for the enrolment itself seemed not to be working (or it may just be that not many people are adept at using fountain pens).

Whichever is the case, any director of RCIA worth his salt would have checked the pen beforehand and I did not. Fr Eoin, the MC, deserves special credit for making the pen pile-up look both dignified and purposeful. When we entered the Sacristy at the conclusion of the Rite, the bishop looked as though he was having his passport photo taken as well.

Personally, I think there’s something very apposite about a malfunctioning pen during this important liturgy of welcome. It’s like saying: “Welcome to the Catholic Church: be aware, not everything works as it should but, just as God can write straight with crooked lines, so too he can read invisible signatures. There’s no going back now.”

To be honest, I feel a little bit of a fraud trying to ‘direct’ RCIA in the diocese, as we have not had any candidates here in St Joseph’s for three years. Or rather, no one for the RCIA process: there was one new addition to the Church who ‘entered by another door’ according to a different timescale. Still, it’s remarkable how easily you can get out of sync with the RCIA roadmap.

The chief administrative task of the director of RCIA is to get a list of those preparing for Baptism or the other Sacraments from the respective parishes. Even in a small diocese like Paisley this can be a bit of a struggle, as getting a response from priests can feel like an exercise in ‘herding cats.’

Whatever the grace of ordination may add to a man’s spiritual make-up, it almost always robs him of the ability to reply to emails, letters and invitations. I can vouch for this as one of the prime examples or worst offenders. Apparently, the curial staff use the expression ‘he’s gone full Bollan’ to denote a person who has basically gone into communication lock-down with head office.

Response deadlines are ignored, phone messages go unanswered, harried office staff eventually have to turn up at your door and shout through your letter box. Although I sound as though I’m making light of it, it is an affliction and causes a real headache for those trying to organise anything.

As one of my colleagues gleefully remarked, just as the chap who always slept in invariably got the job of ‘bell-man’ in seminary, so now the chap who serially ignored previous RCIA director’s requests for information has been landed with the thankless task. That’s priest-speak for ‘Hell mend you!’

Anyway, for all the gremlins’ best efforts, there is something beautiful about seeing the enthusiasm and commitment of those seeking to become part of the Church through the Easter Sacraments.

As I’ve said, the visible, external communities of which they become a part aren’t perfect by any means, but the Lord, whose mystical body the Church is, has reached out to them in a beautifully direct way.

In doing so, he has shown them that it is in these imperfect, sometimes wounded, communities, as through his own pierced side, that they can find him and enter into an ever more perfect communion               of love.

For all our imperfections, in the end it’s his perfect love which counts. If you have catechumens or candidates in your parishes, befriend and cherish them. Encourage them on their journey and keep supporting them after the Easter Chrism has dried.

No doubt there will be recriminations over ‘pen-gate’ in the cathedral, but I’m fairly sanguine about it.

I have a list of those who proved exceptionally slow to respond to my information trawl, and I’m sure they would love a go at being RCIA director. And if it all gets a little too acrimonious, I have my pristine passport to hand. I hear the Maldives are nice this time of year.

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