Page 14, 19th December 2003

19th December 2003
Page 14
Page 14, 19th December 2003 — A bishop is also a priest

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Locations: Aberdeen, Glasgow


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A bishop is also a priest

Charterhouse Chronicle John Jukes

/serve a lovely Church, St Margaret's in Huntly, Aberdeenshire. Finished as a building in 1834, it is octagonal in design. There are no low-level windows. The Church is lit by six clerestory half-moon lights high up on six of thc walls. These offer entrance to the sun as it works it's way round the sky. So the light in the church is constantly changing, except when the massed clouds roll in off the North Sea and plunge us into darkness, even at midday, especially in the winter months. One of the octagonal sides of the church is the sanctuary adorned with a large painting of the Ascension and decorated marble and mosaics. Facing, is the point of entry to the church under an overhanging balcony mounted on two columns.

Each of the remaining six sides hold very large paintings of episodes from the life of Christ, all quite dark, said to be by the Spanish painter Romero Lopez. It might have been this that led the parish priest in 1900 to have the great inverted saucer dome of the church decorated together with the. upper friezes, in a great splash of colour and design. The effect is dramatic. On entry to the church your eye is initially caught by the highly decorated sanctuary, then your sight is drawn upward to the domed ceiling and friezes.

Heaven seems to be bearing down on you and your instinct is to lie on the floor to be able to take in the series of monograms and figures flung across the dome. Outside in the dark months the floodlit ceiling shines out through the clerestory windows, while the nearly 80ft-high Spanish style bell tower, lit courtesy of the town council, proclaims the presence of a house of prayer.

I have been here for three years now. I had planned to spend my remaining priestly energies helping out in the Diocese of Aberdeen in response to an urgent appeal from the then bishop, Mario Conti, who was having great trouble in responding to the needs of his people. I proposed living in one of the vacant presbyteries in the diocese to help any parishes where the priest needed a holiday or had fallen sick. So Bishop Mario suggested I might like to take up residence in Huntly. This seemed a suitable place where I could be of help.

St Margaret's had had no resident priest since 1994, when the excellent pastor Canon Louis McWilliams died aged 90. However once I had decided to come, Bishop Mario, who is now Archbishop of Glasgow, persuaded me that it would be much more convenient if I were to be parish priest. With reluctance I said yes to his proposal and so found myself commit-. ted as pastor to about 160 Catholics in Huntly and the surrounding countryside.

Huntly is a small town with an interesting history linked, for many hundreds of years, to the great Gordon family. It has a population of about 4,500. Many parishioners, however, live outside the town in the neighbouring hills, scattered across more than 400 square miles of lovely Scottish countryside. They have moved into the parish and were not born here, some because the parents sought a better quality of life for their children. It has been an enthralling experience visiting the homes of all the known Catholics in St Margaret's parish. They have considerable spirit and conviction. For six years they were served for Sunday Mass by a dedicated, elderly and busy neighbouring parish priest who lived 10 miles away. But for the rest they had to manage on their own: maintaining catechism for the children, caring for the church, sustaining a life of prayer and keeping the accounts. Now they have welcomed me, although at first they clearly wondered what they were getting. Could an ancient, retired bishop really serve them and, above all, their children?

I have done my best. I encourage all the people I serve to try to become aware of their spiritual strength that comes from the Gospel and their membership of the Catholic Church, a strength that is able to oppose and reverse the assumptions of our society which accepts opinions and activities that diminish and even destroy human dignity. I find much help in building up the conviction of the Catholics in Huntly through the beauty and sense of community and prayer in St Margaret's Church. Despite the scattered nature of the Catholic community, about half of all parishioners are at Sunday Mass.

They are truly Catholics of the 21st century. There is a last-minute rush of cars and off-road vehicles just for the start of Mass and to occupy the seats at the back. They sing together exceedingly well. They manage to make a 250-seater Church look respectably filled. After Mass there is a slow dispersal as they exchange family news and make arrangements to meet. They are very dear to me.

Bishop Jukes OFM is a retired auxiliary Bishop of Southwark

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