September 2021

 

Letter from Fr Scott

 

The priests-to-be are quiet on the journey from the retreat centre to the Cathedral. But then, we’re spread out. The diocese has hired a large coach so we can be socially-distanced, and I have about 5 seats between me and the guy behind and 4 seats from the lady in front.

Anyway I’m not in the mood for chatting. I’m about to be ordained as a priest in front of my family and a few hundred people, and that prospect weighs heavy on me. It isn’t the occasion; it’s the meaning. And as I watch the road to Manchester slip past my window, I ask myself how a little guy from Oldham gets from working in a sales office for 3 decades to become a priest.

We could still be travelling now and I wouldn’t be any nearer to an answer.

The Cathedral looms large and dark as we snake into the city and what words are exchanged on that coach soon dry up. We’d had a rehearsal just 4 days earlier but my memory is hazy. Farid, an Iranian deacon I’d trained with, looks worried as he asks me some questions in halting English about the service. Another deacon overhears him and says: ‘Farid, just follow who’s in front of you.’ His face opens into a big grin: ‘I follow, yes’, he says.

Leading yet following … I reflect on this as I robe in the Regimental Chapel. It reflects the dichotomy of priesthood: in the world yet out of it; seemingly holy yet riddled with flaws; set apart yet in the middle of the mess. Outside the quiet of the chapel the body of the cathedral fills with relatives and clergy. Canon Marcia had conducted our rehearsal and now she’s shepherding us into pairs with our training incumbents. Rod stands behind me and cracks jokes to relax me. He dislikes wearing robes and now I know why: I’m sweltering in mine and I can feel the grease of perspiration on the inside of my collar.

We process out and the 12 Ordinands take our seats in a wide semicircle around the chair where Bishop Mark of Bolton sits. Our training incumbents sit behind us, the relatives fan out behind them. Beneath our chairs are kneelers. At the rehearsal, 4 of the 12 of us had decided to kneel during the Litany until we come out to be ordained. I’m one of them. I carefully follow my Order of Service and at the appointed moment, I slide the embroidered cushion out from my chair and kneel.

I instantly realise I’ve made a big mistake. I’m sitting on my heels, my feet stretched out behind me and pulling hard on the muscles of my lower legs. My shins begin to ache. I try to transfer some of the load to my upper legs but there’s a chair right behind me and Rod’s behind that and I cannot move. Bishop Mark is reciting the Litany and I can see on my Order of Service that he’s got some way to go …

I lean forward slightly to try and ease the pain in my legs but I wobble slightly and I quickly rock back in case I pitch ignominiously forward on my face. Minutes pass very slowly. My feet and shins are on fire and sweat runs freely down my head and neck. But I have to go on. I don’t want to draw attention to myself by crawling back on to my chair. I’m not even sure my legs could hold me if I do try to stand. I grit my teeth as the Litany goes on. And on. The words in my Order of Service blur as my eyes water in agony.

Then I hear someone’s name called. It’s a fellow deacon, way over to my right at the other end of the semicircle. We’re being called in alphabetical surname order and I quickly work out I’m 8th in line. My shins and feet are screaming as my colleague stands and approaches Bishop Mark and kneels down. He seems to take an unreasonably long time about it. It’s a solemn, holy moment but I just want the bishop to get us all done quickly.

I think a couple of eternities pass before I dimly hear my name called. But now I’m worried whether I can stand. My feet are two molten lumps of lead at the end of rivers of fire. I lean forward, place my hands on the cold stone floor, awkwardly plant my right foot beside the kneeler and push myself up. Instantly the pain drains from my body. I stiffly walk towards Bishop Mark and slump on the kneeler before him. I’m so exhausted that I sag into a heap and he has to crouch low to lay hands on me and anoint me with oil.

I’m priested. The Bishop moves back, so I transfer my weight on to my right foot to stand. But my cassock is trapped under my heel and as it pulls it unbalances me and I throw out my arms like a skateboarder to stay upright. Bishop Mark glances quickly at me in concern but I somehow stay on my feet and I straighten and bow and turn embarrassed towards my chair. No one seems to have noticed. My fellow deacons are absorbed in their thoughts. Rod looks impassive and no one is laughing. I sit, rapt in blessed relief.

With blessing,

Fr Scott


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