A Golden Canon

Before John F. Kennedy was elected President of the U.S.A., before the popular excitement of the Beatles, one year before the writer of this article was born, during the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, a young man lay prostrate while all present asked the saints to pray for him as he was ordained for the service of God’s people. His name was Michael Ryan. The year was 1959, and it was not long before he and another newly ordained priest, Michael McNamee, were sailing up the Clyde to the Broomielaw, then on to Motherwell. In these days of fast travel and instant communication to anywhere in the world it might be easy for us to forget the courage of these and many more men who left so much to come here to serve the needs of the Scottish Church.

This was a time when society was on the verge of change. It was a change which would contain good and bad elements. One of the main positives came in the form of developing the post-war National Health Service. Waiting to flourish was the civil rights movement. This would seek civil rights for black people in the U.S.A., and civil rights for Catholics in the north of Ireland. Forty years later there is now a black President in Washington; we are still waiting for a Catholic Prime Minister at Westminster. Of course, for people of a certain age the memory they like to hold onto of the 1960s is one of a free and wonderful era. Yet, with the perspective of history it may now be seen that at that time the seeds of undermining the family and destroying marriage were being sown.

These events still hadn’t unfolded when the young Fr Ryan and Fr McNamee sailed up the Clyde. In any case, they knew that in any situation of societal flux the one constant was the Church. ‘When you hear of wars and revolutions … the end is not so near,’ advised the Book of the Apocalypse. During the turbulent events of the sixteenth century the Church declared that it renewed itself when necessary and kept on renewing itself (Ecclesia reformata et semper reformanda). However, for normal parish life this was more theoretical than practical. So, for the young Fr Ryan from County Sligo the change and decay to be seen all around was countered by the changelessness of Holy Church. Then Pope John spoke, and opened the Second Vatican Council. It all seemed like change, even for the Church. Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council, but it was Pope Paul VI who brought it to a conclusion. Indeed, to those who were frightened by the prospect of change, Pope Paul counselled that faithfulness to the Church of the future was as important as faithfulness to the Church of the past. Thus Fr Ryan and his fellow priests at the time found themselves in a situation which was changing in many ways from the one for which they had been prepared. So, what did they do? They served God’s people, and through their faithful and persevering service allowed the Holy Spirit to implement the changes. The good priest always does the right thing.

Around that time something exciting was happening in church architecture. It was the work of Jack Coia. The work of the firm Gillespie, Kidd & Coia might have had many flaws; however, it was without doubt a serious attempt to do something more than just throwing up church-like buildings. In my opinion too many modern churches are tasteless and dull because the architect asked the question (if indeed any were asked) ‘what does a church look like?’ It might have been better to have asked ‘what will happen in this sacred space?’ Influenced by Le Corbusier and others this was something Coia attempted with St Bride’s. Of course, even a fan of Coia would be blinkered not to recognise his many errors. He was also unlucky ⎯ the fortress-like St Bride’s building, which sought to express the idea of the universal Church as a bastion of truth in a hostile world, appeared out of step with Pope John’s idea of opening the windows to the world in order to engage with the good, and to influence the not-so-good. But, at least he tried. Thus he created a church of colour and light. ‘Surely, he’s talking about another church building,’ I hear you say. No; I mean St Bride’s. Coia knew that the building, like the Church itself, needed to be simple and conducive to prayer. It also needed colour. But the real church colour would be found in the real Church ⎯ the people. Therefore, when the parish community gathers for prayer in St Bride’s the austere simplicity of the walls invites us to appreciate the colour in the sacred images ⎯ men and women, boys and girls, created in God’s image and likeness.

Coia also knew that light was needed, but different kinds. Artificial light was provided by fluorescent tubes above the ceiling for the occasions when plenty of light was needed. And, if I may digress for a moment, the act of climbing the ladder from the minstrels’ gallery, out into space, then onto the ceiling gangways took real conviction. Of course, many people over the years possibly were not aware of the vigilance and perseverance required for that task. It didn’t just happen. Jim Douglas (may God reward him) made it happen. For quieter times of prayer Coia knew that columns of light funnelled through the huge cannons on the roof would offer a dramatic experience enhancing a sense of spirituality. However, the real source of light is the Holy Spirit illuminating the presence of God in the parish community. The Latin American theologian Fr Gustavo Gutiérrez said that ‘in the community all must give prophetic testimony, not just some’. At the same time, the community needs leadership, and the appropriate kind. It needs to be persevering and prayerful in the service of God's people. These are qualities which St Bride’s parish has been privileged to receive from Canon Ryan. And, they have been enriched by the depth of his knowledge in historical and literary matters. It is good if the priest can be a cultural as well as a religious figure in the community.

The light which comes into St Bride’s is not from the immoveable cannons on the roof of the building, but from the canon who is at the heart of the parish community. We salute you Michael, golden jubilarian and canon of St Bride’s. 

Father Gerard Bogan, St Ninian’s, Hamilton