When having my hair cut, I like the barber to get on with the job and let me go home as quickly as possible. So it’s always a trial when they say “What do you do for a living?” You know this is the opening to polite chit-chat.
When I was asked the question recently, I said: “I am the Apostolic Administrator of the Falkland Islands and the Superior of the Ecclesial Mission sui juris of St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island.” A bit cruel perhaps, but the poor man was stunned into silence. Bliss!
Last October I was entrusted with the pastoral care of the British Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic. The area covers around a sixth of the surface of the earth – 99.8 per cent of that is water, but the larger bits of land all have Catholic communities striving to live the Gospel in far-flung places. Living in the UK, my task then is to ensure the communities are cared for and to visit them at least once a year. This is no easy thing to do. To get to St Helena or Tristan da Cunha takes a six-day voyage from Cape Town. So far I have spent time on the Falklands, Ascension and St Helena. In September I will make my first visit to Tristan da Cunha.
The numbers of people involved are relatively small. In the parishes which our community serves in Chelmsford, there are more people at weekday Mass than attend the parishes on those islands. Still, each soul is precious. When I travel to the islands, I keep in mind the heartening words of Our Lord: “For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The Falkland Islands are perhaps the most well known of these territories, sadly in large part due to the invasion 35 years ago. The parish is cared for by Fr John Wisdom, a priest from our Norbertine Priory. He initially went out there to look after the parish for six weeks. Two years later, he is still there. The parish has a beautiful church which features on most postcards from the islands. On top of his parish duties, Fr John is building a good relationship with the garrison at Mount Pleasant.
Ascension Island is an extraordinary place. It is a volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, but at the centre of the island is a lush green mountain. The outskirts of the island look like a lunar landscape, and then the centre is a little paradise. The chapel is a grotto located on the American airbase. It is looked after, although when I arrived to say the first Mass there in a very long time, I had to empty the chapel of some wandering goats, and clean up the little offerings they had left behind.
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