March 23 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Parish support in times of tragedy

A family’s great pain, THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS says, has brought together a Catholic community — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I am writing this on St Joseph’s Day and, so far, it’s been a funny old feast (for me at least). Thankfully, it was a beautifully crisp morning, allowing the kids from the primary school to walk down for Mass. At the end of Mass, we always sing a slightly tweaked version of the hymn to St Joseph, which takes out the line ‘Teach, O teach us how to die’ and replaces it ‘Dear St Joseph, be our guide.’

Wee Peter, who heads up the Tweed Street Taliban, absolutely hates this amendment to our beloved hymn. It was just as well he wasn’t there this morning (I imagine he’ll be down tonight for the bishop’s station Mass), because I couldn’t have made eye contact with him during it.

Although I derive a little mischievous pleasure from his sounding off about it in the sacristy, I do understand where he’s coming from. I also hate it when the words to hymns are tinkered with to make them more palatable to modern audiences.

After all, I’ve been singing that hymn, death included, since I was in P1 and it hasn’t done me much harm, has it? Airbrushing ‘the D word’ out of the hymn is a pretty futile exercise, given that so much of our Faith is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But this morning there was a particular need for extra sensitivity. Yesterday we were shaken by the news that a young mum in the parish had died suddenly. This would be tragic enough, were it not for the fact that her three young children had already lost their father a few days after Christmas and their gran a few days after that.

In fact, if it had to sit down and invent a tragedy, I don’t think I could come up with a scenario more heart-breaking than the one actually being lived out by that wee family just now. The eldest child is making his First Communion in a matter of weeks: goodness knows what he will be going through at the moment.

Thank God we can rely upon our school to help support the children’s Nana and we have generous parishioners who, already, are anxious to show their sympathy and solidarity. It is that, perhaps more than anything else, which sustains us at this time. From the moment I heard the news on Sunday, I felt as though I was carrying a medicine ball around in my guts. I struggled for words. Of course, words are largely redundant at a time like this.

Amid all the frenetic activity associated with death and the arranging of a funeral, I think there’s a great wisdom in the Jewish custom of ‘sitting Shiva.’ There is a repertoire of mourning rituals which are meant to follow on for a seven-day period after the funeral.

Among these, which include the covering of mirrors and lighting of candles, is the custom of sitting on low chairs. We often scurry about trying to think of practical ways to help or distract the bereaved, but there is often nothing more helpful than just sitting with those who have lost a loved one. By far the most psychologically healthy part of the process, in my view at least, is that it removes the necessity to say anything. Mere presence is enough.

Hymn-tweaking aside, St Joseph remains the patron of ‘departing souls’ and news reached us all that, in the early hours of this morning, Cardinal Keith O’Brien was also called to the Lord. The cardinal died just a day or so after his 80th birthday and five years after his resignation under circumstances which are well known and still painful for some in the Church. I think the pain felt was roughly commensurate with the affection in which he was held by so many.

Perhaps understandably, reports of his death have made reference to the cloud under which he departed the scene in 2013. It would be a shame, however, if the good he did was ‘interred with his bones’ (with apologies to Shakespeare). I always found the cardinal to be kind and courteous. He was a prodigious letter writer and, if ever he had cause to write to me about something related to the university, it was always personal and encouraging, never a terse standard template.

I know of many acts of kindness which he carried out discreetly and well out of the public eye. Not that he ever shied away from the public eye, of course: quite the opposite. I doubt there was ever a prelate who enjoyed getting his photo taken with folk quite so much as Keith Patrick O’Brien.

Indeed, for many years, the Scottish Catholic Observer seemed to be mostly taken up with photos of his appearances around his archdiocese, the rest of Scotland, or the world, for that matter.

All joking aside, apart from the knowledge that he had let people down, I imagine that it was the loss of a public life which caused him most suffering over the last five years. I had a brief exchange of emails with him last year, so I know how much he appreciated the help and support of his regular visitors but, reading between the lines, you could tell that he really missed not being in the thick of Church life.

It looked as though he might die on the Feast of St Patrick, not only the feast of his ‘middle name saint,’ but also his ­birthday; as it turned out, he ‘got away’ (as my old Irish parish priest would always term it) on the Feast of St Joseph itself. No better day than that, I reckon. Requiescat in pace.

Here at St Joseph’s we regularly have callers looking for food, or money for Power-cards or to get themselves to the bedside of a sick relative in hospital. Nappies and other, more intimate products, are also sought from time to time (which, as a rule, we tend not to stock). When the SSVP are not easily reached and I’m convinced of the emergency, I’m not averse to allowing the moths to escape from my wallet and help them out myself.

Usually this charity flows in only one direction. I was a little taken aback, and initially thoroughly bemused, to be on the receiving end of a gift from a couple of the girls who stop by St Joseph’s on occasion.

“We’ve got you a present and we know you’ll like it,” said one as she reached into her pocket.

“Is it all of my cash back?” I asked, wittily.

“No,” she replied, flashing a big smile as if to say, ‘Don’t be daft.’ With a flourish she produced a little silver box: “It’s a Bible keyring.”

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love the Bible and I love keyrings. Normally, my reaction to something which combined both these things would be one of unalloyed joy. But this time my face must have betrayed other emotions and questions. “We didn’t steal it,” they assured me, lest my enjoyment of the Bible keyring be lessened by the hole it was burning in my pocket.

“Go on,” they insisted, “Open it. It’s a real Bible.” I did so, a little gingerly, expecting it to be full of blank pages or meaningless scribble. Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out to be a real Bible with miniscule print (albeit the slightly slimmer ‘Protestant’ version of the Good Book’).

As well as the ‘Catholic books,’ for some reason it also omits the Book of Revelation. This may be to comply with Health and Safety requirements. If you had a very large magnifying glass and a very literal interpretation of the Bible and you got as far as chapter 10:10 (where the writer eats the scroll from the angel’s hand), you might be tempted to chow down on this tiny Bible. I reckon it would only take two bites, if that.

Still, I’m grateful for what I call my ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Bible. I can’t actually read it, but it’s small enough to go on Jasmine’s collar. No doubt you will quote me the saying ‘Do not give to dogs what is holy’ (Matthew 7:6), but I don’t think that applies to chapel house pooches, do you?

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