Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Welcome to Corpus Christi, Scotland

Well, not literally, that is. But we are all called as a Christian people are called to be the ‘corpus Christi’—the Body of Christ in our world, aren’t we? So, people can be the ‘Corpus Christi” in Scotland as well as they can in good ol’ Texas. So, welcome to the town of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Population: 10,000. The northernmost urban settlement in Britain—in fact Norway is a lot closer than the next city (Aberdeen), about 12 hours by boat to the south. As soon as I landed here yesterday (um, please don’t ask how I got here.), I took out my IPhone camera and started chasing for steeples. It’s always a good way for me to orient myself in new and strange places. And besides, I really am a bit of a church mouse at heart. After passing through some slender, concrete-lined alleyways and climbing lots and lots of stairs, I finally reached the top of the town. Here were the Methodists. Over there the Presbyterians. And that large church in the middle? Not a church at all, but a civic building. Oh, and on the side, the narrow roof topped with a tiny stone cross must be, well, I’ll be darned, sure it is—the Catholic church in town. I approached the still freshly painted- bright red-- front door of St. Margaret’s (as in, St. Magaret, patroness of Scotland). Locked. No matter, took a few pictures of the grounds. But just as I was passing the parish house, I spotted someone: “Hello, are you a priest by any chance? Really? Great! So am I.” Within minutes, I welcomed to tea by the pastor, Father Anil Gonsalves—native of Goa, India, five years’ ordained, and resident of Lerwick for two years. We ended up touring the church and taking a long, leisurely walk around town for the next hour. As we looked around and I stopped unannounced every so often to take some tourist photos, Fr. Anil told me about his life and ministry here in this remote settlement: Catholics are only a very small minority—not more than 250 people in total—on the island. But the parish is vibrant, with lots of young families and kids. Last year St. Margaret’s celebrated its centenary. Old bills got paid off (deep sigh of relief), the women’s group stitched a handsome antependium for the main altar, and a generous donor provided some strikingly contemporary stained glass windows. (On closer examination, I spotted—yes, depictions of oil rigs and platforms sharing space with traditional pastoral scenes. This is the petroleum-blessed North Sea, after all). Fr. Anil was enthusiastic and impassioned about his parish. People were really beginning to get more involved. Church attendance has been growing; good participation at parish events. Increasing ecumenical cooperation (last year’s joint Christmas carol program brought to St. Margaret’s townspeople who had never been in a Catholic church before). There are plans and dreams for animating the youth, and even a possible trip to Rio for World Youth Day in 2013. Parishioners Bernadette and Mary Rutherford are going to a remote village in Uganda for a month of volunteer ministry and collecting children’s things to distribute. Of course, the town has its real problems as well: isolation, underemployment, a daunting climate (a sweltering 48 degrees this bright June day) all tend to breed anxiety and depression. In their wake, drugs and alcohol have also made their way to this hauntingly beautiful edge of the world as well. Lerwick, Shetland (Scotland) is also a far ways away from Fr. Anil’s hometown in Goa. And from clergy colleagues as well. But he keeps busy and balanced with sports (tennis, badmitton, squash), daily hikes, and (his own) home-cooked meals to which different parish families are invited on a weekly basis. Contact and support among confreres takes the form of prayer and support meetings every six weeks at different venues in the diocese. And then there’s the annual to touch base with family and friends. St. Margaret’s in Lerwick may be small and geographically remote, but it is as alive and vibrant as any urban parish I’ve ever experienced. Here, in the cold and sober North, there is a warm and welcoming family of faith—with a future full of hope. Website: stmargaretshetland.uk Email: stmargaretsshetland@btinternet.com

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