Anglicans, like their Catholic counterparts, tend to celebrate most of their ordinations on or about the feast of Ss Peter and Paul (or “Petertide”, as they are wont to call it). I’ve recently become aware of a spat among some of my Church of England friends – mostly conducted on Twitter – regarding the practice of having a jokey or light-hearted photograph of the bishop and the newly ordained ministers after the ceremony.
The Church Times often features several such photographs, but there is growing unease as to whether or not it’s a bit infra dig: beneath the dignity of the occasion and the ministry itself. I have to say that I do find the manic glee of these photos a little jarring. Do we really want to see a star-jumping bishop in full episcopal rig? Is it absolutely necessary to witness freshly minted deacons or priests “dabbing” (last year’s playground craze – no doubt to be replaced by this year’s, the hip-gyrating “floss”)?
Thankfully, such things are rarer in the Catholic world. This may be due, in part at least, to our common practice of ordaining one priest at a time. Levity, spontaneous or choreographed, is easier to pull off in groups. To be honest, I can’t even imagine a newly ordained Catholic giving a thumbs-up.
While that may be a virtue, it can also mask a vice. One of the arguments adduced in favour of a zany moment amid the solemnity is precisely the need to counterbalance the formality with an expression of simple joy. This has been a day long-dreamed of and its realisation comes after a lot of hard work: is it not right to leap like John the Baptist in the womb or like the deer in Isaiah (35:6)?
And then there is a more troubling phenomenon: the maintenance and expression of joy in the priesthood itself, as a way of life. I was struck by something a lay friend of mine said to me the other day. “In my experience,” he observed, “there are very few priests who are happy.”
Given the toxic effects, on a personal as well as a parish level, of priestly unhappiness, the Church should perhaps consider adding a “promise of joy” to those it already requires of its ordinands: “Do you promise to carry the joy of the Gospel in your heart and give it expression in your demeanour, words and actions?”
Were that the case, there would be less of a need for handstands or gurning prelates.
This year’s feast of Peter and Paul will be my 24th anniversary of ordination, and my thoughts inevitably turn to that night. There was a moment of unintentional hilarity as I was being clothed in my vestments, when 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, even though 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 today. 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.”
Now I am somewhat grey, and more than a little tired. When I was challenged by some kids in the primary school to attempt that floss dance I mentioned earlier, I sidestepped the challenge, not so much because it was an affront to my dignity, but because there was a real risk of dislocating something. Even a star-jump might end in serious personal injury.
This is because my 24th anniversary is somewhat eclipsed by my 50th birthday, two days later. Thoughts of Saga catalogues and walk-in baths now occupy my waking hours, and tiptoe into my dreams as well.
My family have been pestering me for gift ideas, but I really don’t need anything and I’m frankly in denial about the whole half-century thing. I thought about combining the two, but have discovered that a 24th anniversary has no material connotations, such as paper, cotton, silver, etc. Instead, my research informs me that “people tend to give a musical instrument”.
Perhaps I’ll ask for a trumpet. Even if I don’t make it to silver, I’ll always have brass.
Fr John Bollan is parish priest of St Joseph’s in Greenock and an honorary teaching fellow at the University of Glasgow