June 29 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Looking back on the joy of ordination

The end of June ushers in two of life’s important milestones for THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS — By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I love the feast of Sts Peter and Paul, largely because it’s when I celebrate my anniversary of ordination (along with many other priests, of course). This year will be my 24th anniversary—and how time has flown!

I can still remember the run-up to it very vividly. It was a bit like my First Communion all over again: my mum taking me to Glasgow for a new suit, popping into a neighbouring parish for Confession, a rehearsal at the Church (“Keep your hands joined, John!”, barked the MC and it was as though he was channelling my Primary 3 teacher, Miss McEvaddy).

The night before my ordination was spent celebrating the silver jubilee of a good friend and mentor, Fr Tom Monaghan. His jubilee was also on June 29, but he very kindly brought the Mass forward by a day to avoid a clash with my ‘priesting.’ I felt both touched by his thoughtfulness and proud to spend my last evening as a deacon assisting at his Mass.

I didn’t stay for much of the after-party, although I understand that the karaoke went down a treat and the assembled clergy were up ‘doing the slosh’ until the wee small hours.

Instead, I retreated home and planned to have an early night. My mum, who often retired early, had already gone to bed by the time I got home around 9 o’clock. I had scarcely kicked off my new shoes (I was told to break them in that night), when the doorbell rang. There was His Lordship, Bishop John Mone. I experienced a momentary flicker of anxiety, thinking: “Has he come to call it off?”

Thankfully, he had not come for that purpose, but to visit the ordinand and his family on the eve of the ceremony. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but that was his habit, and a very fine one too.

“Where’s Josie?” he inquired. Bishop Mone was famously good with names.

“My mum’s gone to bed,” I explained. “Will I go get her?”

“No,” he replied, “Don’t wake her. I’ll see her tomorrow.”

We sat and chatted over a cup of tea as he asked how I was feeling and shared his memories of his own ordination over 40 years before. At that point, Josie made her appearance, coiffed, fresh lipstick in evidence and, unusually, wearing a dress. “Josie!” exclaimed the bishop, “John said you were in bed!”

“I was,” she admitted, “but I would never open the door in my nightie, especially not for the bishop!” I thought then, and still do, of that Chic Murray line: “Funny place to have a door.”

But I digress. My mum and the bishop blethered away, while I mostly sat and nodded at the verbal ping-pong between them. Just after 10, he bade us goodnight and imparted a special blessing to the mother of the soon-to-be priest: “It’s as though you’re giving birth again. Thank you.”

I could see my mum well up at this. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the emotions bubbling up at that moment or an eye-watering flashback to almost 26 years previously when she was told that her baby was too big and her blood pressure too high for a normal birth. I would be delivered by Caesarian section and, to this day, I’m often tempted to leave a room by the window.

Most of the next day was a bit of a blur. The church was absolutely packed: my mother’s strategy of standing in the town centre badgering people to come had certainly paid off. There was also a great turnout of priests, especially given that it was a Holyday of Obligation and there were evening Masses on at the same time.

I was lucky to have two bishops at my ordination, as Bishop Stephen McGill was then a spritely 82-year-old (and he’d live for another 11 years). He kept grinning and giving me ‘thumbs up’ at various junctures before the actual laying on of hands.

He was the bishop who accepted me for seminary, so perhaps he was also giving himself a pat on the back for a mission accomplished. Those of us ordained that year were the last of the McGill crop in Paisley Diocese.

There was a moment of unintentional hilarity as I was being clothed in my vestments, as the vesting priest, Fr Eamonn Mulcahy CSSp, struggled to find the opening in the chasuble for my head.

“Eamonn, I think that’s the sleeve,” I suggested, despite the fact that chasubles have no sleeves and the collar of the vestment could easily have accommodated the neck of a Charolais bull. He continued to faff, while I struggled to extricate myself from the voluminous vestment, like a very inept escapologist.

The sudden appearance of my head prompted a ripple of laughter (and even some applause) to break the tension of the moment. Some might call that a bad omen, but for me it more or less inaugurated the tone and style of the years of ministry that would follow. I can make simple things look very complicated; I somehow manage to get tangled up in things and always rely on the help of others to free me.

Although I have since acquired another red vestment (which I much prefer), I shall wear my ordination chasuble on the 29th. Looking in the sacristy mirror takes me back to the dark-haired, 25-year-old who wore it for the first time. I can still smell the Chrism, still feel the impression of the cold marble on which I lay as the saints were summoned in song to my assistance. “Help this chosen man. He doesn’t know how vestments work.”

The mathematically-minded will have worked out that I am about to turn 50 this Sunday. I’ve already received a slightly early birthday card, as well as a letter welcoming me to the bowel screening programme—who needs a telegram from the Queen?

I’m also conscious of entering the sights of Saga, who are keen to sell me holiday insurance and to introduce me to trusted installers of walk-in baths.

Personally, I was hoping for a walk-in hot tub but I’ve been told the parish building fund is not to be frittered away on such luxuries. I’m allowed zippy slippers and that’s about it.

It is our first weekend of a slightly lighter summer schedule: St Joseph’s is forgoing its 5pm evening Mass on Sunday, so at least I should be available for any impromptu birthday shenanigans, should they be sprung on me.

I may have a funeral the next morning, so I imagine my half-century will be ushered in in a sedate and responsible way.

It is, after all, only a number. You are only as old as the priest you feel, as the saying might well go, if it existed.

50 years was the measure of the original Biblical Jubilee or Sabbatical year (seven Sabbaths of years). It was also the frequency of the original Holy Years in the 14th century, before switching to every 25 years after 1450. That’s a free history lesson for you.

These weeks mark the 50th birthday of two of Blessed (soon to be saint) Paul VI’s most significant interventions: the Credo of the People of God (June 30, 1968) and the Encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25, 1968).

I sometimes wonder if Pope Paul had some presentiment of the opposition which would greet his encyclical, which was prophetic in so many ways.

Was the Creed he proclaimed on behalf of God’s people a few weeks before something of a pre-emptive rallying cry? As if to say: “This the fabric of our Faith: it is from this, that all the rest derives.”

I’ve always been struck by the fact that I was born (and Baptised) in between these two documents, in the calm before the storm, as it were.

As I celebrate both my birthdays—priestly and ‘natural’—I’ll be putting up a prayer to this courageous and often misunderstood Pope.

And I’ll ask him to look out for Bishops Mone and McGill and tell them I was asking for them.

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