or, The Curate’s Egg
Morning has broken
It’s a funny old game; you stand at the back of Mass week in week out and say hello, and very soon know the faces, but it can be literally years before you manage to connect with some of the most regular parishioners beyond the quickest of “Good mornings”.
I think that from our side of the fence we can see the great priority to make people feel welcome and included in parish life. For some people that is not what they want at all. They are happy for the extent of their inclusion to be coming quietly to Mass once a week.
It may be an imperfect analogy, but the last thing I want when I walk into a shop is someone to come up to me straightaway and say, “Were you looking for anything in particular?”, or the even more over-familiar and irritating idiom that seems to be catching on: “Are you OK there?” I always want to deconstruct the sentence and say “How do you mean? Are you asking about my general health, my existential struggle? The question carries the implication that you probably are not OK. It also successfully alters the nature of the interaction. As a customer you have an inherent worth; by opening the stakes with the possibility that you are not OK somehow you become a seeker, a patient, an object of their compassion. I don’t, of course, say this. I say, “I’m just having a look round, thanks”, and they reply, “That’s not a problem.” This makes me even more annoyed. Isn’t this an open shop? I cannot conceive of circumstances in which it could be a problem: surely that’s what customers do? Again the phrase is a brilliant shifting of the paradigm so that you are now somehow being indulged, humoured.
I digress somewhat, but I am so glad to have got it off my chest. It is relevant to what I was saying, for too hearty a welcome, too intrusive a desire to include everybody and them feel special, feel to some parishioners like the ministrations of the intrusive shop assistant. What they want is to be left to get on with saying their prayers, and to know that you are there if and when they need more. They want to feel they are recognised for who they are; parishioners, not long lost comrades.
And so the doors open and another Sunday congregation comes out, or rather the sub-set that is the eight o’clock Mass, for it is really like having several little parishes at each Mass, so loyal are people to their chosen time. Among the passing nods and greetings there is time and occasion for more meaningful encounters.
Mr Brown speaks to me in the sort of tones you might use to harangue the gas board of some monolithic bureaucracy to complain that his wife, who went into hospital during the week, hasn’t received Communion yet. I explain patiently that this is now the responsibility of the hospital chaplain whom we have informed, but that if nothing happens today we will go in ourselves.
Here’s Mrs Smith, who complained some months ago of strange noises in her flat. She is very deaf so I was somewhat cautious about their provenance. I blessed the flat and for a while she seemed content. She told me this morning that she has been hearing horrible voices, and a crash in the night, and that for the very first time she is frightened. I told her I would come and say Mass there.
Though the vast majority of the reported manifestations of evil spirits have psychological origins it’s important not to dismiss such things out of hand.
On the face of it she strikes me as someone with her feet solidly on the ground, and she is also – how can I put this? – sufficiently savvy about her faith not to be imagining all sorts of loony superstitions.
A couple who are marrying here in April came up and said hello. At the risk of sounding cynical, this is a welcome change. It is not uncommon for couples to book a wedding a year hence and for you never to see them inside the church until the day of the rehearsal.
A family come out with their newborn baby girl. I saw the mother at the school just before the Christmas holidays and she was heavily pregnant.
The baby was born on the December 23. I was admiring the tiny child and a very beautiful thing happened. The oldest daughter, who is seven and has a lovely confident manner, said to me: “You know, you should be a Dad, you’re really good with children.” I thought it a most beautiful compliment. I told her that the parish was in some way my family, but realised as I was saying that this sounded terribly theoretical and abstract beside her spontaneity.
I thought it was a beautiful thing to say not because it was about me, but because it was about the priesthood of Jesus Christ, of which I, only through His choice, have been given a share. Perhaps by grace I am growing into it a little.