The mark of a servile mind or one of family habit?

The mark of a servile mind or one of family habit?

Is your priest punctual; does he start Mass on time? If he does, have you arrived by then? This issue arises in every parish in Ireland, where Mass can begin in one of three ways; a little early, bang on time, or a little (or a lot) late.

There is a fourth possibility, which I observed in Africa. The local priest and I were at the church, where everything was ready at the appointed time – but no one else was there.

Across the countryside, we saw a large band of people a long way off, coming toward the church on foot, talking and singing. When these arrived, they continued to talk and sing.

Here was the fourth possibility for when Mass might start: it began when the people arrived (and there’s a lot to be said for that too).

Punctuality, according to a colleague of mine, is “the hallmark of a servile mind”. My friend quotes this approvingly, as punctuality is a foreign concept to him. Punctuality, he opines, is a sign of anger at one’s father; 30 years of his being late for lunch appointments have taught me to recognise the habit of a lifetime, not easily changed.

In each of the parishes where I have ministered, I’ve heard stories of the time-keeping of my predecessors.

One story concerning daily Mass was hilarious: “Father sometimes started five minutes late, or ten, but if I arrived that late, the whole thing might be over!”

Of course, even if I started exactly on time, the same few would dribble in between the Gloria and the Gospel”

In another parish, Sunday morning Masses were celebrated in two churches, 15 minutes apart. Father shared breakfast with a local family after 10am Mass. Then, at about 11.50am, he’d be seen in the village of the second church, buying sweets for the altar servers. Then he would amble over to the church – and start the 11.30 Mass.

He was fortunate to be a much-loved pastor, for whom everything could be forgiven, though I would imagine the diocesan office was kept well informed of his timekeeping.

As for me, I try to start Mass on time, though I do not always succeed. On weekdays, the phone rings at the worst times, usually when I am dashing out the door.

On Sundays, first Mass is at 9.15am, which must start punctually. It’s a matter of necessity, as second Mass in another church a few miles away is at 10.30am. The narrow roads between the two churches are often filled with Sunday-morning joggers and cyclists, while each Sacristy contains parishioners bearing Mass cards, and people needing to talk (and sometimes vent). Of course, even if I started exactly on time, the same few would dribble in between the Gloria and the Gospel.

My theory is that we learn punctuality (or lack of it) at home. My mother was always on time for Mass, but never early. My father was always early, at least ten minutes ahead of start-time. I slotted into the compromise between them. You think I am unpunctual? I blame my parents! It’s probably your excuse too.


It all helps!

Every parish has its own characteristics, its distinguishing marks. One of the traditions in Newcestown is that the holy water fonts and the larger container are filled from a local holy well (which God has blessed through the ages).

The farmer who owns the land on which the well is situated is often seen transporting churns of this special water to our parish church. One day I commended his actions. His reply, delivered with a wry smile, spoke volumes: “Anything I can do to stop the divil ‘picking at’ the people of Newcestown, I will do!”

We need more people like him.


Newcestown is the parish in which I minister. In the far corner of its churchyard cemetery, a small plaque is attached to the wall: “In memory of an unknown travelling man buried nearby.”

There is so much sadness in those few words, but it is a worthy thought that a group of parishioners sought to keep his memory alive. One of the traditions that has grown locally is that brides arrange that flowers are placed on his grave on their wedding day. There’s a beauty to that kind of friendly gesture that always brings tears to my eyes.