As the great bard said in To a Mouse; “the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley”. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Father Gareth’s impending trip to Paris to look after our Passionist church at Avenue Hoche for a few days. He was very much looking forward to it, never having been to Paris, but in the end he didn’t go. The reason was, partly, that we were more under pressure in St. Mungo’s than expected, but also that we had been asked if we could help out in a neighbouring parish for a few weeks up until Christmas, where the parish priest would be undergoing, and then recuperating, from surgery. After a brief discussion Father Gareth and I agreed that the greater need was with our neighbour, a genuinely lovely man, and that Paris would have to wait for another time. Our Provincial managed to get a returned Passionist missionary from Africa to go to Paris instead, and that was that.
What Father Gareth couldn’t postpone though was a trip down to the Welsh Valleys to see his mum for a few days, and that’s where he is now as I pen these words. When Father Gareth goes to see his mum, he always brings two bags. One of them is full of big books, mostly commentaries on the Scriptures and great tomes on Theology. He never seems to read small books; they are always big doorstoppers. Perhaps it’s because he is a big man. The other bag is always empty, and that’s because his mum fills it with chocolate to bring back to the Passionist community, as she knows we all have a sweet tooth. Knowing that her big son has the sweetest tooth of all, she always gets things that she knows he doesn’t like, only a mum would know that, so that the chocolate horde will arrive at Bishopbriggs intact, without Father Gareth having demolished it on the way, as well he could. It should be numbered among the wonders of the world to witness Father Gareth demolishing a six-pack of Turkish Delights in one go, each bar disappearing in a single bite.
The founder of the Passionists, three hundred years ago next year, was St. Paul of the Cross. He always said that the greatest benefactors of the Congregation were the parents of the religious, by which he meant the great sacrifice of the gift of their sons. Offering Mass and praying for the parents of our religious, both living and dead, is a serious and regular obligation for the superior of any Passionist community, and one of which I am very conscious. Until fairly recent times, of course, a son joining the Passionists would have meant those parents seeing very little of their sons for many years. While that had changed a good bit by the time I joined in 1975, I remember it was embedded in the mind of my mother, and she took some convincing to accept that I would be home at least a couple of times a year.
During my student days and right up until present times, the parents and families of fellow Passionists have been like an extended family. There is a bond that is created very naturally. In one sense it becomes easy to understand Jesus’ response to his disciples when they wondered what the payback was for leaving everything to follow him, and he said that whoever left fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters for his sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, would receive fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters a hundredfold in return.
Of course, occasionally, there is another side to it. I remember when I was a student, being asked to arrange the music for the funeral of an elderly Passionist who had to be one of the most difficult and cantankerous people I had ever come across. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to meeting his family in case they were all like him; but when I did meet them, they were absolutely lovely. Then, when the subject came up about their deceased relative, there was a bit of skirting around his character, until one of the family said, “look, the greatest debt of gratitude we owe to the Passionists is that you took him off our hands, and we don’t know how you managed to suffer him all those years”. But that was very much the exception rather than the rule, and we are unreservedly happy that Gareth’s mum gave us her unique big son.