Scottish Diocese hopes to be a faith refuge

Scottish diocese hopes to be a faith refuge

 

On the windy promenade of Oban, a western Scottish port, the gray stone façade of a modern cathedral gazes out over a choppy autumnal seascape of distant islands, edged by anchored ships and rocky promontories.  When Brian McGee moved here last February to become the ninth Catholic bishop of Argyll and the Isles, he was struck by the stunning vistas all around him.   Since then, he's journeyed constantly from his base at St. Columba's Cathedral to remote, far-flung parishes, developing ideas for making his diocese a hub for pilgrims and spiritual seekers.   "Catholics are spread very widely here.   Scotland's Catholic Church dates its existence from a mission by St. Ninian in A.D. 397, and has traditionally been strong in the Western Isles, whose main ferry port, Oban, was the obvious choice for a new Catholic See when the church was re-founded in the 19th century.

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With just 30 clergy, the diocese includes 144 islands spread over 12,000 square miles. It's considered one of Europe's most scenic areas, as well as one of its least inhabited, with just 10,500 Catholics making up 14 percent of the total population.   Even in the church, there are cultural differences between the firmly rooted parishes of Lochaber and the Outer Hebrides, and the more marginalized communities of traditionally Protestant Argyll and Bute.

McGee's diocese carries prayers and messages in English and Gaelic on its website, as well as stories of its holy patrons -- from the Irish St. Columba, who set up the first monastery in 563 on the tiny island of Iona, to the Australian St. Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), whose Scottish family originated near Inverness.


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"St. Columba's great gift was in the hospitality he offered everyone, and having only recently re-established a Catholic presence here, we're trying to continue this today," explained Sacred Heart Sister Jean Lawson, who runs the Catholic House of Prayer on Cnoc a' Chalmain, or Hill of the Dove, on Iona.  

"It's a lively time to be a Catholic here now, and it helps to know something ~about the church's history," she said.    "But there's also a deep tranquility here, even when the winds are strong and the rains heavy -- a sense of being close to heaven, ~which frees you to pray and reflect."

If the diocese is based administratively on Oban, its spiritual heart is on Iona,~ where the community founded by St. Columba (521-597) still lives on.   

The monastery endured Dark Age Viking raids, but survived as a center of ~ learning and spirituality, and helped spread the Christian faith to the rest of Britain.   When Protestantism was imposed on Scotland during the 16th-century Reformation, ~ Iona fell derelict and the Catholic Church came close to being eradicated.   

Some Catholic communities survived, largely thanks to their very remoteness, while traditional pilgrim links with Ireland kept local devotions strong.   But it took till the late 19th century for a Catholic Church hierarchy to be re-established in Scotland, and the often brutal Reformation events have left their legacy in clearly defined island loyalties.

Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish church's media office, and a native of Catholic Barra, thinks the Western Isles have their own distinctive spirituality. And though there's still some uneasiness between Catholics and Protestants, attitudes have clearly softened.

Things which are no longer seen in the rest of Britain, such as wayside shrines and statues of the Virgin Mary, are still common here, "Those seeking to get rid of these expressions of Catholic piety faced obvious difficulties getting to inaccessible areas like this. This is why these Catholic traditions remain so strong."

Born at Greenock to Irish parents 51 years ago, McGee agrees it's an exciting time to be Catholic in Scotland, particularly now that interchurch ties are generally better.

Jean Lawson rscj