Saturday of this week, January 25th, is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, bringing to an end the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is also the day in Scotland when we celebrate the life and poetry of Robert Burns, this date being his birthday, which for many people will culminate in a Burns’ night or a Burns’ supper, which should involve eating copious amounts of haggis, piped in and addressed; washed down traditionally with Scotch whisky; although I’m sure Irn Bru is acceptable for the non-drinkers; then the recitation of some of our national bard’s best known verses, and the singing of some of his best known, and often very beautiful songs. I have been to a number of these in my time and always enjoyed them. Even during my years at Mount Argus in Dublin, the cook would go to great lengths to make sure that on this day there was haggis available for myself and anyone else who wished to try it, although the description of it as a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet and spices, and then cooked in the lining of the sheep’s stomach, was usually enough to put them off and leave it all for me – lovely! Perhaps the most memorable Burns’ supper I celebrated was while I was studying in Rome, back in the early 1990’s. I had been ordained a deacon in the Passionists’ mother house of Saints John & Paul on 10th December 1992, having successfully negotiated some oral exams in Scripture, Doctrine and Morals, conducted by a Swiss Redemptorist in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran a few weeks before, and then making my preparation retreat in the monastery of the Presentation of Our Lady, the first ever Passionist monastery, on Monte Argentario, which is on the west coast of Tuscany.
Throughout my formation for priesthood in Ireland and in Rome, I and my contemporaries were at an in-between stage with regard to studying the Code of Canon Law, which is the fundamental body of ecclesiastical laws for the Catholic Church. The original Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1917, had been suspended to allow work on a new code, and so all through our studies we were working with provisional documents that had yet to be approved. However, the work now completed, the new Code of Canon Law was scheduled to be promulgated by Pope John Paul II on the night of 25th January 1983, Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome. Perhaps, as a conscientious student, I should have gone to that, but it was also Burns’ night, and I had received an invitation to join the students in the Scots College in Rome, on the Via Cassia, for a traditional Burns’ Supper. I had got to know some of the guys in the Scots College through meeting them at the Gregorian University where we were studying at the time. I used to go out to the college on an occasional Sunday where we would eat mince and tatties instead of pasta and watch recordings of Celtic games. They were a very welcoming bunch and I enjoyed those visits thoroughly, and so I found the invitation to the Burns’ Supper hard to resist. It was a great night altogether, everything was done as it should be, and I still hold the memory dear. Needless to say, I have studied the 1983 Code of Canon Law, also known as the Johanno-Pauline Code, very thoroughly since then to make up for it.
I have had a soft spot for Burns ever since I was presented with an illustrated book of his poetry, as well as an illustrated copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, for winning a poetry recitation competition at primary school at St. Peter’s in Partick back in the 1950’s. The poem I recited for my moment of glory wasn’t even a Burns’ poem, it was Walter Wingate’s The Sair Finger. However, I attribute my love of reading and my love of poetry, which I still bear to this day, to that long-ago happy experience. Among my favourite poetry is the Book of Psalms, and my favourite psalm is Psalm 121, which begins:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains; where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.