Fire Engines, Papal Masses and a Changing Church

Father Hugh Kelly this year celebrated his Golden Jubilee. He and other jubilarians joined the community for our celebration of St. Andrew’s Day this year, and here, he reflects on his priesthood.

On 1st July 2017, with my family and friends, I celebrated Mass in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome at the altar of Pope Saint John XXIII. It was a magic moment for me. To be there with those who have accompanied me on my journey in the priesthood was joyful, humbling and maybe a little fearful. Joyful, because those important to me made the effort and journey to be at my side. Humbling, because no matter how good we feel, we know also our failings; the sense of trust we have fostered over the years we have known each other, both in God—made known to us by His Son—and in each other. Fearful, because time flies by so quickly; so much was promised, so little has been done, and yet we are surrounded by love and appreciation.


The jubilarians of 2017 with the staff of the Scots College. Fr. Hugh Kelly is pictured with Mgr. Burns, Fr. Mills and Fr. Duggan in the front row, from left to right.

The joy of the Mass spilled over into a lovely afternoon meal in the gardens of a Rome Hotel on a glorious Roman July Day. I think I shared in the banquet of rich food, but a banquet too of rich friendship and love.

I began my studies at St Peter’s College in Cardross. The pope was John XXIII, our bishop, James Donald Scanlan, and the Rector Mgr Charles Treanor. On St Andrew’s Day 1960, I was there when the first sod was cut on the site of a new seminary which was built as the Second Vatican Council opened. The Council was something that dominated my time as a student and brought about a real sense of change in the Church. It was clear to me that ideas, practices and customs in the Church were set for an overhaul.

My years as a student were extended after I missed a year through illness. However, that meant I was able to experience the official opening of the new seminary at Cardross, and it was there that I spent my final year of preparation before my ordination on 29th June alongside my fellow students from Glasgow.

After a spell in the cathedral in Motherwell, my priesthood continued in Sacred Heart, Bellshill, where I helped as chaplain to Scotland’s largest maternity hospital. I still remember the fear of visiting wards full of pregnant women; terrified babies would be popping out all over the place. Yet the fear would turn to joy and I still remember the happiness and sometimes sorrow. It was a special time for me. The sadness of the Abortion Act, now fifty years on as well, was tempered by the genuine joy with which mothers greeted their new children. There was genuine grief too, from those whose babies had died. It was a privilege to grieve with them.

By the mid-seventies, I had crossed the Clyde to St Ninian’s in Hillhouse, Hamilton with Fr James Quin. Fr Quin did not keep well, so I tasted the beginning of some responsibility. The tough economic situation of that decade impacted heavily on people’s lives. Unemployment grew, traditional works like mining and steelworks were beginning to shrink. Yet the parishioners built up a great social spirit and proved very loyal to what we tried to accomplish. I remember the parish social group deciding to make something special of the Easter Vigil: we would have a proper bonfire, a procession of Easter Light into the Church and afterwards return to the bonfire for a barbecue. This was an experience which taught me the importance of communication. The plans weren’t put before the sickly Fr Quin. When the bonfire erupted with the help of a jerry can of petrol, all the poor parish priest saw from his sickbed was the flash of flames rising into the night sky. He phoned the Fire Brigade. Three units turned up and were not too amused at our explanation of celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord. The barbecue went well, even if it was a bit subued until it was time for the fireworks; no thought of ‘Health and Safety’, my head altar server tried to retrieve a firework that did not explode. He lifted it up and then the excitement started again. This time, the blue lights came from an ambulance that took the wounded to the Victoria Infirmary.

Pope John Paul II visited Scotland and from that relatively small parish, twenty-three double-deckers took us all to Bellahouston. Another amazing memory from my fifty years of priesthood.

After Hamilton, I spent a short time in St Patrick’s, Shieldmuir. It was while I was there that my father died. I still remember the great support that my family and I received from Canon O’Farrell and the people of St Patrick’s. From there, I spent time in Ballieston, Coatbridge and a short stint as the last resident parish priest in St Mungo’s, Garthamlock. It is always sad to see a parish go into decline. It was a thriving community but only for a very short time. Changes were happening in society and in the Church; we witnessed several people drift away from the faith and its practice.

I left Coatbridge to come to Newmains, a village community where our diocese changes from the urban developments around Greater Glasgow to the more rural setting and smaller communities of the southern part of the diocese.

It is a beautiful setting with a great history going back to the 1870’s and influenced by the Industrial Revolution. I have just been joined here by one of this year’s new crop of priests, Fr Bruce McPhail. I began in a house of five priests and in a diocese of almost two hundred assistant priests. Fr Bruce begins in a diocese with around seventy priests. Communities are changing, the Church struggles to renew itself in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

As priest, I have served under five popes: Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Francis. Some have already been declared saints; others—like ourselves— are still striving towards the promise of the Lord. Changing times, changing needs, yet the one Light of Christ. When we feel disappointed because so many ignore the Gospel message, we look at the ministry of Jesus, by and large ignored, scorned, rejected, and yet, St Peter finds the words to inspire us:

“Will you walk away too?” said Jesus. He replied “Where shall we go. You alone have the words of eternal life.”

This is our motivation as priests. To hear Jesus invite us to bring him to our world. Just as in Old Testament times, the prophet always finds that he must be true to his God—not the God he might like to preach, but the God who is and who will bring His work to fruition through the power of the Spirit. This was Peter’s discovery, and it must be ours as well.

I have much to be happy about. My jubilee day brought this home to me as did a celebration with my parish family. It was a reminder of how much they appreciate the presence of a priest among them. This is the love and hope awaiting all our future priests in churches up and down the country.

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