HEARD the one about the seven student priests asked to leave a bar because staff thought they were stag nighters in fancy dress?

Of course you did. It made world news largely because the very idea of young men entering the priesthood seemed anathema to our society. Over the years numbers have been shrinking like chocolate bars to the point new submissions to seminaries in Scotland actually fell to zero. (Entirely understandable, given the plunging reputation of the Catholic Church).

But now surprising news has emerged. Thirty students are now being processed. Sure, it’s not a change of Biblical flood proportions, more a decent-sized trickle in the direction of recovery, credited to the Pope Francis visit and perhaps hope of a new liberal dawn.

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What was really strange about the news however was the personal impact it had because my relationship with the church had long been bifurcated. As a seven year-old, chapels were seen as oppressive places. The incense stank of medievalism. Mass was a Gothic theatre production, played out in Italian, which was all Greek to me. And the hours before confession caused tiny schoolboy shoulders to become as heavy as a cross.

I fully gave up on the Catholic Church about the same time I renewed my Man From Uncle membership card. I found it easier to get my head round the unlikely KGB-CIA alliance against THRUSH (named, you imagine, in the days before the yeast infection was invented) than the concept of the Holy Trinity.

So why this sudden romantic notion of priests? The mind raced back. Hours of churning later, Father Brennan came to mind, the Parish Priest in St Margaret’s in Renfrewshire in the early Sixties. He was Irish (they all were) had a Steve McQueen-Great Escape crew cut and he would play football with the kids at dinner time. And he would swear like a soldier. He wouldn’t use the ‘F’ word in its actual form, (not priestly at all) but by substituting a ‘B’, as in “Buckin’ great shot, young man” intent was achieved.

Father Brennan also kept the social order. You didn’t mess about in the street if he was around. When cousin Jim and me were once caught relieving Woolworths of a few Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, Jim’s mother threatened me with The Priest.

Father Brennan was also on a permanent watch for mass refuseniks, and he’d push guilt buttons hard. (Actor Lawrie Ventry tells of his local priest in Glasgow’s Cowcaddens, a Cork man, who’d punch boys on the head if they missed mass or misbehaved. But that same priest would run local dances. And on at least one occasion he kitted out Lawrie’s (non-Catholic) little friend on realisation the chum’s clothes were threadbare.)

Father Brennan could also use his fists. But for good. At one time, after my mother had taken one too many thumps from the drunk she was married too, Father Brennan got to hear of it. He turned up at the door and asked my dad to reconvene to the back door, where he declared he would beat the buckin’ sh*** out of him. The drunk (at this point completely sober) declined. No, he could never, ever hit a priest. Father Brennan simply pulled off the dog collar and said ‘Where’s the priest?’ Job done.

From that point on, I had a new hero. Steve McQueen and David McCallum were still up there, but not on the celestial plane occupied by the man in black. Along the way, more priests stood up to be counted. The St Vincent De Paul boys were often a godsend. I re-watched Angels With Dirty Faces more times than was healthy for a boy still in single figures, fascinated by Pat O’Brien’s character’s interminable self-sacrifice.

Later, I wallowed in the priests’ ever-present dichotomy as portrayed in fiction and film such Graeme Green’s The Power and the Glory and even in Father Ted; how to love one another - yet draw the line at physical relations - based on a 12th century ruling, designed to cut off inheritances and contain church wealth?

Other priests played significant roles. At high school, Father Diamond (Daddy Diamond) had a calm that somehow cut through teenage angst. There was the young, funny priest called to administer the Last Rites after a failed parachute accident. Thankfully, his appearance at the hospital bedside was just a little premature. But we kept in touch. And although he attempted a re-conversion, it was as gentle as his Dublin accent.

Recent times however polarised personal views on the Church to the point of vilification. Gradually, you pull back a little knowing the minority were to blame for the institutional sins. But then you realise the smile on hearing of rising numbers of young priests is not a clarion call for the Catholic Church. You realise it simply triggered memories of community, when society cared about your physical and moral welfare.

Today, we worry we’re lost. Our world is beset by Liam Fee tragedies and foodbanks and young people being ensnared by fame or abducted via social media. So perhaps we could do with a few more buckin’ good priests.