Today, for a second time, the Church in Scotland remembers Bishop / Archbishop Conti. Last week, his funeral was held in Glasgow, in the Cathedral of St Andrew he so successfully embellished. Today, “appropriately” as he would have put it, we remember him here, in the diocese where he was bishop for just short of 25 years and in this Cathedral. This is the Cathedral which he tried also to embellish (less successfully), but where, more importantly, he celebrated Mass, Christmas, the Easter Triduum and Pentecost, where he preached, heard confessions, baptised, confirmed, ordained, wedded and buried so many people. Today is our opportunity to remember Mario, thank the Lord for him and commend his soul to the mercy of God. It is twenty years since he left Aberdeen for Glasgow, and there is a generation that does not know Mario Joseph. But those of us who did know him remember him with affection and appreciation.
The readings we have today are his own choice for his Requiem and, Isaiah aside, are drawn from the proper readings for the feast of Pope St Gregory the Great to whom he was much devoted. It was at his earlier request that I preached in Glasgow. He even – in true Mario style – left “some notes for the homilist”! I will try here, though, not simply to repeat what I said before, but to focus – in the tale of two cities, which was his life – on his time in this diocese and city.
Mario one knew. He was a presence, a personality, often an event. He was not easily missed or overlooked. He didn’t mean to be one of life’s footnotes. He had a sense of the bella figura, of himself, of his episcopacy. Not for nothing, at Blairs and the Scots College, did he relish Gilbert and Sullivan. For him, the world was a stage and he was keen to play a role upon it, and to be seen to be so doing. Asked at Primary School in Elgin what he wished to be, he famously replied, “Pope”. Such was the human raw material that his Christian and ministerial callings, and the grace of his own baptism and ordination, took hold of and turned to good – for the benefit of many.
Last week in Glasgow, it was good to see again his housekeeper of many years, now 102 years old, Jean Johnstone originally of Fochabers. “Well”, she said after the funeral, “he had a good send-off, better, I’d say, than Queen Elizabeth’s.” “He was a nice man, a holy man”. Some tribute from a housekeeper! After his retirement, he would visit her regularly in the Care Home of the little Sisters of the Poor in Robroyston, or ring her up to ask for guidance as to how to make macaroni cheese.
We know the outlines of his life. Born in 1934, in Elgin to Italian parents, he was educated there, then at the Junior Seminary at Blairs and at the Scots College and Gregorian University in Rome. Ordained a priest in 1958, he served as a curate in this Cathedral and then for some 15 years as parish priest in Wick and later nearby Thurso, where he introduced religious sisters and built at church and presbytery in Thurso. He was appointed bishop of Aberdeen at the tender age of 42 and ordained here by Cardinal Gray on 3 May 1977. In February 2002, just short of his silver jubilee, he was transferred to Glasgow and served as Archbishop there for 10 years before retiring – actively! – in 2012. His passing was tactful and simple. It coincided with a meeting of the Scottish bishops only a few miles from the Glasgow hospital where he was and so enabled some of us to visit him on his last day. He had only recently been down to Birmingham to visit his sister. He did not suffer protractedly and left us – appropriately again – on the feast of the Scottish philosopher and theologian, Bl. John Duns Scotus.
After all that followed and the many and diverse, national and international connections he gathered through life, I find it hard to imagine him as a young simplex sacerdos in Caithness as the Second Vatican Council unfolded far to the south. How did he fit in? he was once asked. The breakthrough came, he would tell, with the cattle market in Thurso. There were concerns that the entrance fee was largely disappearing into the wrong pockets. He was asked, as a man of the cloth, if he would stand at the entrance and do the collecting. He said he would, as long as the Church of Scotland minister could be his companion in the task. “And the takings soared”, he added. It’s a cameo of Mario, already in those tender days of his ministry befriending other Christians. Ecumenism was dear to him throughout his life, and his contribution to it in Scotland no small thing. On St Margaret’s day just past there was an official signing in Dunfermline Abbey of the Declaration of Friendship between the Church of Scotland and the RC Church in Scotland. Mario would have rejoiced in it, and though he was not, I think, involved in the drafting, his own long-lived, many-pronged capacity for friendship beyond his own confession surely contributed to it. In his letter of condolence, the current Moderator gave warm recognition to Mario’s ecumenical endeavour.
Back to our diocese. He was prone to lyrical evocations of its varied geography, from Inverbervie to Unst to Ullapool and Stratherrick and relished its Catholic history still more. I remember a celebration in the church of St Gregory at Preshome when Mario treated us to a full narrative of the penal times. As it went on, a local laird seated beneath the pulpit took to ostentatiously consulting his watch, and Cardinal O’Brien concluded the liturgy by thanking Mario for “turning the pages of history for us, and indeed leaving no page unturned.” “My beloved diocese” he would continue to call it, and as Bishop I sometimes received one of his elegant letters announcing an imminent re-appearance in his “beloved diocese”! During his 25 years here, the diocese changed. The old sources of priestly vocations from the Catholic enclaves of the Enzie and Upper Banffshire ran dry. He made a fruitful agreement with the Society of Jesus and would canvas for clergy from elsewhere. The presbyterate became less homogenous, more diversified, its multi-nationality anticipating that of the local Church as migration increased. He introduced the Permanent Diaconate, the first to do so in Scotland. He encouraged adult formation in the faith and the training of catechists by setting up the Ogilvie Institute. He opened churches. He always took great interest in their architecture and furnishings – part of a long held aesthetic sensibility. He confirmed countless youngsters over the years and ordained many of the clergy here. He made provision for the support of marriage and encouraged alternatives to abortion. This dove-tailed with a wider interest in bioethics. He cherished the religious life, knowing that without it the Church is incomplete. He made friends in the University world and celebrated the first Catholic Mass since the Reformation in King’s College Chapel. He was awarded a Doctorate in Divinity by the University of Aberdeen and given an honorary professorship by the now Chancellor, happily here present. Animated by his sense of history and the lay apostolate, he supported the knightly orders of the Church, also represented here. He enjoyed civic events, was a good table companion, and knew how to work a room. In such contexts he was always a firm and courteous advocate of the Church’s teaching and ethos, not flinching its more controversial aspects. He encouraged Aberdeen’s ties with its twin city of Regensburg. He played a prominent part in the mourning for those who lost their lives in the Piper Alpha disaster.
Inevitably, he was sometimes embroiled in controversies, both here and in Glasgow, but he had the knack of emerging unscathed from them (at least in his own eyes). His penchant for Victorian phraseology sometimes backfired. Like all bishops, he doubtless managed at times to disappoint and irritate both clergy and faithful – though he could be very supportive of a priest facing difficult pastoral or other situations. He inspired affection in many quarters. He was always himself and was rightly described as a Christian gentleman. St John Henry Newman and the gracious 17th c. Savoyard, St Francis de Sales, continually inspired him. And so, in our shifting times, already other than those of his heyday, he leaves behind the fragrance of many fidelities, all of them wholesome.
And so, perhaps, we can touch the heart of the man. He loved the Lord and the Church and his priesthood – the best of loves. He sensed the holiness of beauty and sought the beauty of holiness. He was committed to those he served. His motto sincero corde servire, drawn from the 29th Collect of the Year, encapsulated his deepest intent. He felt himself, like St Paul, “entrusted by an act of mercy with the work of ministry”. In his prayer, he felt himself shepherded. He didn’t become Pope, but he resonated with Pope Gregory’s definition of his role as servant of the servants of God. He hoped to reflect something of the Gospel Christ present in our midst as one who serves. Surely, he did.
And so here, in his “beloved diocese”, we remember him fondly and gratefully, knowing that “for the faithful departed life is changed, not ended”. May he rest in peace.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 24 November 2022