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Packing the brolly for a Roman holiday

As he sets off to Rome THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS reflects on promising developments at home — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I am emailing this from the departure lounge at Glasgow Airport, as I am swapping The Bow in the Heavens for The Dome of the Tiber (also known as Rome). In fact, I will only be spending a little time in the shadow of Michelangelo’s cupola, when I’ll be showing some parishioners around at the weekend.

This isn’t an organised pilgrimage, however, like the one we ran two years ago for the Year of Mercy. It just so happens that John and Laura will be in Rome at the same time.

John and I go way back—to the same class in high school in fact—which is why I find it remarkable that he should be celebrating a ‘Big Birthday’ this year and I won’t be doing so for another five or six years! John and Laura’s three boys have all been altar servers at St Joseph’s; indeed Daniel, the youngest, has not long started in the family tradition.

While all teenagers try to look ‘gallus’ for the benefit of their peers, John was always a thoroughly nice chap. It’s little short of miraculous that he hasn’t succumbed to the 90-odd per cent lapsation rate which swept our contemporaries away from the Church, or at least from regular practice of the Faith.

Still, as I always say, Catholics are like sticks of rock: the letters go all the way through. Sadly, whenever I meet old classmates nowadays, it is usually for the funerals of their parents or, even more distressingly, I meet their families to arrange the funerals of those ‘taken too soon.’

But I am never judgemental about this drift from the pews. I know what it’s like to be part of this lost (or ‘currently misplaced’) generation. I’m not entirely joking when I tell people that God made me a priest to make sure I continued going to Mass.

Now, my generation are the lapsed parents and, in some cases, the grandparents of children whose religious upbringing is either being delegated to schools or is altogether absent.

There are, however, some tender shoots of encouragement. I recently wrote a piece for The Big Issue on the way in which some Catholic millennials are discovering a Faith which their parents abandoned or at least have kept in ‘standby mode’ in their lives. I have no doubt that we will hear more from these more active young people in the forthcoming Synod on Young People in Rome.

Perhaps as part of this ‘institutional awakening’, there is also a clearer awareness on the part of the Pope and bishops that the local churches need to go from maintenance to mission. Evangelisation is the key to a renewed Church and, in many ways, that involves a pre-proposal of the Gospel to those who have may have forgotten it.

To return to my own youth, I can vouch for the counter-productivity of one particular stab at Religious Education, whereby we copied out Mark’s Gospel for an entire year. Turning God’s Word into a seemingly interminable punishment exercise was no way to instil a love for the Good News.

Thankfully, more sophisticated approaches to catechesis and evangelisation now hold sway. Last Saturday I attended part of the inaugural study day for the Certificate in Parish Mission and Ministry.

It is run as a distance learning course by the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, and our first cohort of a dozen or so students gathered in Paisley to be put through their starting paces for what promises to be a very engaging and useful course. They will explore the various aspects of the parish as a theological and pastoral reality, studying the doctrinal foundations of the various aspects of ministry which are all around us. What I find most interesting about the course is that it’s deeply grounded in personal reflection as well as theology.

My role in bringing the course to Paisley Diocese is a modest one: it was, as I have mentioned before, Bishop Keenan’s initiative and he was on hand to sign the memorandum to launch the course.

It was good to see students from across the diocese (but with a strong representation of the St Joseph’s parishes in which I have been privileged to serve!) and they all seemed to be up for the challenge.

There were a few reservations at first, both from the clergy and some of the laity, but I think the fact that the bishop is so keen on the course has been a crucial factor in changing minds and hearts and stirring up the enthusiasm which was only too apparent on the launch.

And, as the bishop has said, it is better to begin with a smallish cohort—after all, there is a very respectable apostolic precedent for a dozen or so folk transforming the world, never mind a smallish diocese.

I could only be around for the first part of the morning on Saturday as I had a Baptism back in Greenock. This was a lovely occasion, with a beaming baby and a large congregation of witnesses.

It was a very pleasant way to end a week which had been dominated by the funeral of the young mum I mentioned last week. As I know some of you may be wondering, we all got through it. The kindness of strangers, from Edinburgh to the local funeral directors, has been amazing. God bless you all.

For the first time I’ll be leaving St Joseph’s without a supply priest to look after the place. I’m very blessed to have Sr Anne-Marie on the case, but, without anyone being to blame, the arranged cover for this week has fallen through. This means that Acolyte Matthew will be in charge in my absence. I hope there is a parish to come back to!

This is my annual trip to top-up my Romanità, that much mythologised quality endowed by a Roman education. Some people talk about it as a badge of honour, others as a mark of ill-founded superiority: in my experience, it simply translates into a sense of being at home in Rome. This usually means that you have adapted to the gleeful chaos within half an hour of arriving at the airport.

It does not involve, at least not this time (I am back with the school next month), a visit to the Scots College. For a start, they have enough on their hands with the arrival of two archbishops for their formal visitation of the nation’s oldest functioning seminary. The goal of the visitation is to ensure that it stays that way well into the future.

Thursday of this week, April 12, is the 25th anniversary of my ordination as a deacon (my regular reader may recall seeing a black and white photo of this occasion attached to this column a few weeks ago).

What is really scary is that I can remember that day as though it were yesterday: the feel of the cold dark marble of the chapel floor as we prostrated ourselves during the Litany of the Saints, the warmth of the sun on the terazza after we made our way back from the celebratory meal at Mamma Italia’s down in the valley, the excitement at the prospect of taking my family to Assisi the next day.

The laugh about the Assisi trip was that it poured all day: the steep cobbled streets of the city ran like rivers and we ran from the shelter of one balcony to another.

Such was the downpour that it offered us a new benchmark for torrential rain: now, if you were searching for a way to convey the heaviest rain you could imagine, you would say it ‘was Assisi weather.’ Now that’s quite something if you’re from Greenock, the wettest place on God’s green earth.

I remember apologising profusely for this very uncharacteristic weather: I had never seen the like before.

Thankfully, the next year I was able to show my mum and sister Evelyn the ‘real’ Assisi and our parish day trip in 2016 was similarly blessed with sunshine.

The weather forecast for this week is a little mixed. I shall require a brolly on occasion, but I imagine the rain will dry up quickly in the sun. Stay tuned next week for a full report of my Roman holiday; the Vespa is revved up and so am I! Ciao!

 

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