The national Mass to celebrate the 1450th anniversary of St. Columba’s arrival on Iona was held on his feast day in the cathedral dedicated to him in Oban. The principal celebrant was Bishop Joseph Toal of Argyll & the Isles, and he was joined by other members of the Bishops’ Conference, the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Mennini, and representatives of other churches and local and national civic life.
Especially welcome were visitors from Kells in the Diocese of Meath in Ireland, including Bishop Michael Smith and the parish priest of Kells and members of the town council who had brought with them a beautiful copy of the Book of Kells, the original of which had been produced on Iona. The copy is to be on display in Oban over the summer, and during the Mass it was placed on a stand within the sanctuary.
Some two hours before the Mass started, the choirs involved – the Diocesan choir and the Girls’ Gaelic Choir from Uist &Barra – gathered for rehearsal, having travelled by car, bus, rail and sea for the occasion. It was a beautiful summer’s day and soon they were joined by people from across the Diocese.
Before the liturgy began, the bells of the Cathedral were re-inaugurated and blessed for service by Bishop Toal and they rang for the Mass. A group of young people who had gone to Iona on pilgrimage with the Scottish Youth Cross then processed with the cross to the sanctuary and placed the cross before the altar.
The Mass itself began with the resounding hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation”. The music of the Mass was a beautiful mix of English, Gaelic and Latin, drawing on the wealth of traditions in the Church. In particular it was lovely to hear the psalm (Psalm 15 set by Pauline MacDonald) sung in Gaelic by Eilidh MacMillan of the Girls’ Gaelic Choir, to the accompaniment of the guitar of Fr. Roddy Johnston. The Girls’ choir also sang the Gaelic Gospel Verse which had been used at the Papal Mass at Bellahouston for the visit of Pope Benedict, and a Gaelic setting of the prayer of St. Francis to accompany the procession of the gifts.
In his homily, Bishop Toal welcomed the cross which had been brought by the young people from Iona. He also took joy in welcoming the school children present and the Girls’ Choir, and expressed the hope that they would keep the faith alive in their hearts. Welcoming the visitors from Kells and Meath, he reminded the congregation of Columba’s special love for the Word of God which had found its expression in the ability of the saint and the monasteries he had founded to produce beautiful manuscripts of the Gospels. These remind us of the beauty of the Word of God itself.
Referring to the Year of Faith being celebrated by the Catholic community, he pointed out that this Mass was one of the special liturgies to mark in Scotland the witness given by so many Christians in living out their faith in their ordinary lives. The Catholic community has a distinctive voice and wishes to make its contribution to civic society. Columba himself had put his life at the service of the community and used his great gifts well. He had left his mark on Scotland and we thank God for what he brought to us – the precious gift of faith.
Recognising and giving thanks for the flame of faith live within the community, the congregation lit the candles they had received on entering the Cathedral and stood to respond to the Creed sung by Fr. Johnston, raising their candles as they sang in reply “Credo, I believe”. The effect was quite stunning and emotional as throughout the church, candles were lifted high, and perhaps we were all given pause to reflect on what we were singing.
The links to Columba and the Celtic church were reflected in two of the hymns sung at Communion, the first the Iona Community’s “From Erin’s shores Columba came” (to the venerable tune “St. Columba”) and the second Liam Lawton’s “Sail the Soul”.
Before the final sung blessing, Bishop Toal presented Archbishop Mennini with a framed print of the Columba window in St. Andrew’s church in Rothesay, as a memento of the occasion. Everyone then joined in the singing of the Salve Regina before the clergy processed from the Cathedral, to the words of “For all the Saints”, out into the sun and the beautiful views over Oban Bay.