April 27 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


More Charlie Brown than Dan Brown

BOW IN THE HEAVENS reflects on secular media coverage of his role in exorcisms, and says he doesn’t quite fit the movie stereotype — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I was very excited to receive a significant promotion this week. A friend alerted me to a blurb on the front page of the Sunday Herald which invited its readers to ‘Meet the Vatican’s demon hunter in Scotland.’ Below this invitation was a picture of yours truly.

Inside the paper was a double-page spread featuring an even bigger picture of my coupon and a fairly substantial chunk of an interview I had given a few days before.

The Vatican has recently been running its annual course for ‘demon hunters’ and I had noticed quite a few secular news outlets picking up on this. It was off the back of that story that the Sunday Herald decided to run a piece on the Church’s combat with the discarnate forces of evil in our world.

As part of her research, the journalist had carried out an internet search for ‘Catholic exorcist Scotland’ and found me, or rather, my Observer column from last September in which I mentioned having carried out a similar role for a number of years in Paisley Diocese.

I agreed to have a sit-down with the reporter, to help her with some practical questions for what promised to be a ‘myth-busting’ article. I was happy to do so, as there aren’t many opportunities these days to contribute to a Church-related news story which doesn’t relate to the abuse scandal.

My consent to the piece was on the condition that the piece wasn’t about me. Although I may have something of a reputation—wholly unmerited I may add—as an inveterate self-publicist, I wanted to make it clear that my work in this area had been mostly unspectacular and more a feature of my past than my present.

When I got to read the piece for myself, I was a little dismayed that a headline writer had made me out to be ‘Scotland’s exorcist’ and that I was somehow part of the Vatican’s elite Special Forces in the fight against Satan.

While this may titillate avid consumers of a certain kind of fiction, it is far from the reality of my life, which owes more to Charlie Brown than Dan Brown. If they saw that headline, the Vatican would probably hunt me.

When I was asked about a photograph to accompany the piece, I was a little reluctant, given, as I have said, that the piece wasn’t ‘about me.’ They said a nice pic would avoid the paper using a stereotyped ‘exorcist photo’ to illustrate the article.

As is usual in these circumstances, I offered one of my gallery of self-portraits, only to have the offer rebuffed. A photographer would come as well, it was agreed, to capture a few likenesses which did not feature my arms extended in ‘selfie’ mode.

That was against my better judgement, I have to say. For, while there are stereotypical images often used to illustrate Church stories (usually close-ups of Rosary beads, a thurible, Bible or Crucifix), there also seems to be a stock template for a clergy portrait, with the subject standing side-on and staring upwards into the middledistance, as if glimpsing an angel or wondering what’s for lunch.

It’s the same sort of pose they use in brochures for clerical shirts and vestments: if you can picture the Littlewoods catalogue with a section for priests, you’re more or less there.

I have to say that the photographer was very pleasant. Their remit is to help tell the story without words and he had a nice eye for detail. I was a little uncooperative when it came to his request to ‘wear stuff’ or ‘hold something,’ as I felt that was a little gimmicky.

In the end, I agreed to hold a book—not the Rite of Exorcism as it happens—and tried to channel my inner Fr Merrin (the part played by Max von Sydow in The Exorcist).

Typically, although I had gone through a variety of poses, the one which made it into the paper was—muted drumroll, please—‘priest staring upwards into the middle distance.’ To be fair, most people have said the ­photographs are nice, although in the main one the camera has added a few pounds to my face either side of the crease.

The article itself has also been reasonably well-received. While it doesn’t quite reproduce some of the points I wish it had and it downright omits a couple of zinger lines I came out with, nevertheless it tries to approach an easily-sensationalised subject in a level-headed way.

What really surprised me the most, however, was the backlash —or the lack of it. Apart from a few snidely patronising remarks on Twitter, those who responded to the writer’s tweet were mostly positive.

Strangest of all was the relative silence on the comments in the online version. Usually, any article mentioning the Catholic Church draws a torrent of broadly identical posts from the same half-dozen secularists.

These laptop ninjas regularly froth and fulminate over the wickedness of the Catholic Church, its medieval ideas, its manipulation of the credulous, its opposition to liberty, reason and science and so on. This article, surely, would send them into a frenzy of outrage?

And yet, at time of writing, the feature attracted a paltry seven comments from four people, and only three of those were posting the standard bile (so standard, in fact, that I could have told you exactly what they would say before I had even read them).

That is little short of a miracle in my book. Or perhaps their apoplexy was so extreme that they have still to regain consciousness.

If there was a glint of anxiety in my eye during the photoshoot, it wasn’t entirely down to my misgivings over the wisdom of this undertaking. Rather, it had more to do with the fact that the photographer was still snapping away just 15 minutes before I was due in the high school to celebrate a lunchtime Mass.

That’s the bit which the article didn’t really convey: ‘Scotland’s exorcist’ doesn’t sit about waiting for a call from the Holy See’s Demon Hotline. The nuts and bolts of the job of a priest are much more mundane than that: schools and homes to visit, Masses to be celebrated, bills to be paid.

This week is a good case in point. Over and above the regular duties of the average day, I have a Mass for the SQA exam candidates in the school on Tuesday and the Sixth Year leavers’ Mass on Thursday evening

I’ll be in Paisley to lead a twilight CPD session for primary teachers before heading back for a wedding rehearsal (the Big Day itself is on Thursday). Adding to that a number of appointments and a double family birthday on Saturday, this promises to be quite a busy week.

You may have been aware of a bit of excitement down this way last Saturday. Apart from it being our summer, we were also treated to the sight of a pod of killer whales frolicking in the Clyde off Gourock.

Social media was full of photographs of fins breaking the surface and the odd glimpse of their distinctive black and white markings.

Apparently local shops, bars and cafes were also having a whale of a time (I don’t think that line’s been used enough in connection with this story) but, alas, they were only on a flying —or swimming—visit. It seems Inverclyde dolphins are well hard and the orcas decided to high tail it to deeper waters before they got beaten up by the locals.

The topic of my CPD course is Our Lady and this will be a timely reflection given that the month of May is just around the corner. Indeed, this Sunday sees the Rosary on the Coast event. I hope it’s a success.

Indeed, it’s a pity those killer whales didn’t have their calendars more synchronised with those of the Church. If they had appeared a week later we could just have handed out Rosary beads to the sightseers along the waterfront and made the prayer chain that bit longer and louder.

Another top idea from Scotland’s Ex-orca-ist! I know, I won’t be giving up my day job just yet…

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