Recently I returned from a ten-day trip to St Michael’s Deanery in the Western Isles: Bishop Brian shares some of his reflections.
The Gaelic name for the Sacrament of Confirmation is An Laimh-Easbaig which literally means ‘Under the hands of the Bishop.’ It is a beautiful expression which goes right to the heart of what is happening. During the Rite of Confirmation the bishop, with outstretched hands, prays that the Holy Spirit descend on the conformandi, filling them with his bountiful gifts and fruits. That the bishop himself confirms is a symbol of unity and that the conformandi are being initiated not simply into their parish but into the diocesan and Universal Church.
I always enjoy spending time in the Western Isles and I found this latest visit very uplifting. I confirmed children from every parish in the deanery – forty-four in total spread over seven ceremonies. The smallest number of candidates for a single ceremony was only one child while the largest was seventeen. Sometimes people ask me if it is frustrating to travel so far for such small numbers. The honest answer is no! Having their young parishioners confirmed is one of the great events in the life of any parish. It presents a wonderful opportunity for the bishop, parish priest, deacon and all the faithful to celebrate what God is doing in the lives of our youth.
Furthermore, it also allows the adults to reflect what extent they have allowed the Spirit to transform their own lives and so encourages deeper conversion within us all. I was therefore delighted that, even in the smaller groupings, so many parishioners participated in the Confirmation Mass. The liturgy was beautiful everywhere – as was the subsequent hospitality as the community continued their celebrations.
As travelling to the Western Isles for one event actually takes three days (one day to sail, the second day for the event and a third day for the return sailing!) I tend to go for longer visits and take on a number of duties. This particular visit I decided to concentrate on schools. We have no Catholic Schools in the Western Isles which, originally coming from Paisley diocese, was a new – and challenging – experience for me. Initially, I didn’t know what to expect and was very careful not to stand on anyone’s toes! In the Highlands and Islands relationships are crucial which is why, since my arrival, I have frequently travelled around the diocese. I believe that this is paying dividends.
I have found only a warm welcome and I feel very much at home in the Island schools. In the Primaries, I spent time with the Confirmation children, had tea with the staff and then gave a presentation to the entire school on my recent visit to SCIAF projects in India. In the Secondary’s I spoke with R.E. classes. During the trip, I visited every school on Uist as well as schools on Lewis and Barra. Two aspects particularly pleased me: Firstly, I now feel completely welcome in the Island schools and, secondly, I was the first bishop to ever visit the Nicolson Institute (High School) in Stornoway. I am grateful for these opportunities to gently witness to Christ and the Church and I look forward to developing them.
During my trip, I also visited hospitals, spent time with each priest and visited a number of homes. We Catholics believe that during our recent Confirmation Ceremonies the Holy Spirit descended upon the forty-four children. Yet I also believe that I saw many, many other examples of the Spirit’s activity – both within and beyond the Church. We may live in a challenging era for Christianity but if we are open to the Spirit then we cannot but be people of hope.