When Donald Trump won the US election last year, the next day’s Ellon Times carried the headline “Aberdeenshire business owner wins presidential election”. I love how these newspapers have a habit of picking up on the local interest aspect of world events.
Here in Scotland we had the ecclesiastical equivalent of that White House scoop, as the Scottish Catholic Observer, the Herald’s sister title, trumpeted the appointment of the successor of St Ambrose with the headline “New Milan archbishop is an honorary Greenockian”.
The story behind the headline is, it must be said, somewhat remarkable. Milan’s archbishop-elect Mario Delpini sought refuge from the heat of the Italian summer in the slightly less torrid surroundings of my parish, St Joseph’s in Greenock. It was my predecessor here who befriended and welcomed the summer supply relief of the unassuming monsignor who would go on to be auxiliary bishop of Milan.
The parishioners speak of “Bishop Mario” with real affection and take great pride in the news of his elevation to the see of Milan. To be honest, supply priests seldom make all that much of an impact. As they are usually on holiday themselves, they tend not to stretch themselves beyond the celebration of daily and Sunday Mass, along with the odd baptism or funeral. The understanding is that they are there to keep the parish ticking over until the parish priest returns refreshed from his holiday.
Bishop Mario was cut from an altogether different cloth. If the parish were a car, Mgr Delpini would ensure that it got a proper “run” in the pastor’s absence.
Of course, a car is hardly the best analogy for this bicycle-loving shepherd, who preferred to cycle around to the housebound or keep trim by running along the Esplanade in Greenock or up to Lyle Hill, a scenic belvedere within the parish itself.
Last week one of our morning Mass-goers, herself a visitor from the States, was recounting how she approached Bishop Mario after Mass to ask him to pray for her sister who was very ill and, if he had any time in the next few days, to visit her at home. Without hesitation, he said “Why don’t I come with you right now?” and off they went. That Christ-like immediacy was very much in keeping with his style, and explains why the locals are so happy to bestow the demonym of Greenockian on this rising star of the global episcopate.
While I am also proud to know that my seat in the confessional has been kept warm by Archbishop Mario, he also presents something of a challenge to me. Would I spend my summer vacation offering supply in another parish? To be honest, unless a pastor in Las Vegas wanted away for a break, I would be pretty reluctant.
In fact, as you read this, I am in Malta for 10 days in the sun. Of course, there is an abundance of churches in which to find shelter from the sweltering heat and, should I feel like it, ample opportunities to have a busman’s holiday. When it comes to my own holidays, I am, to use that peculiarly modern term, “conflicted”.
A part of me enjoys being on the other side of the altar while I’m away from my parish. I find it both therapeutic and instructional to be ministered to, preached to and, yes, even have the offertory basket passed to me. Or at least I do up to a point. In just about every Mass I have attended while on holiday there has been some idiosyncratic interpolation or puzzling omission from the liturgy which has left me wondering if I have come at the wrong time and inadvertently joined in the worship of another denomination which happens to share the building.
Irked by these arbitrary departures from the Roman Rite – even in Malta – I always ensure that I have my own Mass kit and can use it when needed. I do, however, try to avoid a repetition of the scenario whereby I found myself sharing a plane to Fuerteventura with no fewer than a dozen parishioners and ended up saying Mass for them each day. Now if I meet one of my flock at the baggage carousel and they ask where I’m staying, I just make up a hotel.
Holidays are an invaluable way to rest and repair. One of the main repairs – or reparations – which must be made result from the news that the next incarnation of Doctor Who will be a woman, Jodie Whittaker. As someone who grew up with Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, seeing a female Time Lord at the helm of the Tardis will require a colossal leap of faith on my part. Of course, it is tempting to dismiss this as stunt-casting and part of a sinister repudiation of the male by the BBC and other proponents of a liberal, gender-neutral agenda (step forward, Transport for London).
As hard as I’m trying to rise up above the swivel-eyed misogyny of some of the new Doctor’s detractors, I feel strangely hollow inside. It’s as though, when number 13 drew back the hoodie to reveal the face of a beautiful woman, my five-year-old self burst into tears at the sheer wrongness of it all. Certainly, it feels as though a bit of me has died: who knows, perhaps the holiday will help me regenerate too?
Fr John Bollan is parish priest of St Joseph’s in Greenock and an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Glasgow