Not long after being appointed to St. Salvador’s Church in Dundee’s notorious Hilltown, I saw my first real fistfight between two women. It happened in broad daylight as I was walking down a busy street. Near a phone box the two of them were having an altercation. There was a lot of yelling. One went to the phone. The other rushed at her and punched her twice in the face before someone separated them. At the time I thought it was extraordinary. Other onlookers clearly thought it was entertaining, but not remarkable. The police were not called. What had I come to?
Around the same time, one evening I was saying Mass with a small congregation in our Lady Chapel. The High Altar, separated from the chapel by a wrought iron screen, was draped in darkness. A shout suddenly went up from a little woman in the back row of my attenders. She had spotted someone who had crept in to the church quietly during the service and was taking advantage of the shadows and our distraction to try to make off with a candlestick from the High Altar. Discovered, whoever-it-was fled empty handed and unrecognised. The police were not called. What had I come to?
I soon discovered that among the duties of the new priest at St. Salvador’s was attending to the removal of regular graffiti scrawling on the exterior walls of the church. I determined to eliminate them immediately upon discovery, to give the perpetrators little satisfaction from leaving their mark. The police were not called. One day, as I scrubbed vigorously, I wondered what I had come to. Was this a godless place? Why did the locals seem to hate the church so much? A moment’s reflection gave me the answer.
After my very first Sunday service at St. Salvador’s – a glorious traditional Solemn High Mass that had left us with the unique afterglow of having been in the presence of God – a ragged stranger who had not been in attendance approached me. He said he needed some help with some food. I turned to members of my new congregation and asked them what was normally done here for such requests.
“Nothing,” they said. In the absence of anything else, we came up with £5 among us. What had I come to?
The next week we had a cupboard stocked with non-perishable food items. Their priest would seek to be a shepherd, not a goatherd. (Matthew 25: 31-45)