My March Column – Full Text

It’s Lent again. Is it just me or was it only a couple of months since the last Lent? I must admit I don’t look forward to Lent. Lent is a time of giving up things and the theme is penance. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to face up to the fact that we are dust and are going to return to dust. Now that’s not a happy thought.

The first problem I face is deciding what to give up. I give up red wine, all alcohol actually but I only have a glass of wine (it’s supposed to be good for the heart.) My wife gives up sweets and cakes, so those are out as well since they are not brought into the house. The whole giving up business can create its own problems. I read that Theresa May, our Prime Minister has given up crisps. She got a really bad press for that; all too easy the critics say. Michael Gove went further in an article in The Times. He pointed out that this was a Catholic tradition and it showed that Mrs. May was the first Catholic Prime Minister of the U.K.

He wasn’t saying this was good. He was arguing that Brexit was essentially a Protestant thing and Mrs. May should not be trusted to go through with it. Mrs. May is actually an Anglican but obviously some think she seems a bit dodgy. So it seems that giving up something up for Lent leaves us open to anti-Catholic rhetoric, even if we are not a Catholic.

Now there’s a problem right away. There’s a great temptation to compete with one another on who does the most difficult giving up. I wonder if Theresa May’s critics have given up anything? I must admit I admire her for going public about Lent. I suppose she was asked and had to think of something quickly but it’s unusual for any politician to admit to any Christian action these days. Politicians have been ridiculed for expressing their belief in God.

Carol Monaghan, M.P. for Glasgow North West turned up to her select committee meeting on Ash Wednesday with her ashes on her forehead. Other members could not believe she wanted to appear with this symbol as the meeting was being broadcast on television. Perhaps they found the idea of publicly marking oneself as a sinner, for that’s what we are doing, was a step too far.

What if I had a class of wine tonight, have I failed Lent? Pope Francis would tell me that I have the wrong idea of Lent. Lent is a time of penance; but penance with a purpose. On Ash Wednesday the Pope was comparing the atmosphere of selfishness and downright lies in our society with the atmospheric pollution in our cities. The E.U. has threatened to fine us for exceeding air pollution levels, levels which cause premature deaths. We tend not to notice the pollution as we are breathing it every day. Similarly we do not notice the poisonous atmosphere of sin we inhabit because it’s always there.

Pope Francis tells us that Lent is a time when we can cut out this spiritual pollution and learn to breathe again. My giving up red wine is an exercise for my spiritual health, not a test. If I can give up my indulgence and put the money I would spend on that to some good cause then I’m fulfilling the requirements of penance and almsgiving all in one go; a two for one offer as Tesco might put it. There are plenty of opportunities to use the money wisely; SCIAF’s Wee Blue Box is sitting on our table.

I will try to adopt a more positive approach to this Lent. If I take a long hard look at myself and list all my failings I’m sure I will end up with a massive to do list. I don’t think I’ll be able to sort out all of those faults in six weeks. I think I’ll need to do a wee bit at a time. Where should I start?

The Gospel reading this morning was very short and to the point.

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you; a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’

Luke 6:36 – 38

There you have it do not judge and do not condemn. Well, that lets me out then. Oh yes? Can I be sure that I’m not guilty of judging and, indeed, condemning others? Perhaps I am guilty of judging others when I get annoyed by something they do or say. Do I condemn others? Do I write them off as not worth bothering about?  Maybe I need to take that close look at my behaviour.

While picking out all my faults I should keep in mind where I’m going with all this. I am going, we are all going towards Easter. Easter is the great celebration of the Church. We are celebrating our salvation. We are celebrating that turning point in history when Jesus, by his suffering and dying on the cross, made it possible for us to attain Heaven.

Now if I am going to be judged in the way I judge other people then I’d better start creating a sympathetic judgement for myself. I have to start to be more understanding of all those people who annoy me. There’s a Lenten task that puts abstaining from red wine into the shade.  Perhaps I need to try to put myself in their shoes as they say. If I could see things from their perspective then perhaps I would not be so grumpy.

Well, that’s made up my mind. I’m going to make a greater effort in what’s left of Lent to spring clean myself. I’ll try to move my focus away from the trivial things of this world and set my sights on the next one. Instead of taking Donald Trump’s tweets seriously (that way leads to insanity) I’ll try to take the Holy Father’s words more seriously. When he talks of being tolerant of people in unorthodox marriages and reaching out to strangers I’ll do my best to ‘get with the programme’.

It’s worth remembering at this time that Jesus went through all his suffering and dying to save people who were not Catholics, not particularly good and some were downright bad. That is still the mission of the Church. We are here to bring sinners (including me) to Christ and through Christ to Heaven. Now when it comes to the final judgement and I have to account for myself, what am I to say in mitigation for my sins? I think that helping to bring a sinner to Jesus will go down much better than I always put money in the plate and I never kept bad company.

My March Column – Lent

It’s Lent. How do you feel about it? Is it painful or pointless? Does it make you feel guilty of hopeful? Read my take on this Lent in The Scottish Catholic Observer published today. Get yours today or in your local parish this weekend.

If they sell out – don’t worry the full text will appear here next week. (Reading it could be a penance!)

Do Yo Think You Might Have a Vocation-Full Text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 24th February 2017.

The other day at Mass I learned it was the Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It made me think of the number of feast days we have for Our Lady. I wondered why there were so many. Then I realised that she is the prime example of vocation. She was called by God for a special purpose and provides us with a template to follow.

When I was a wee boy we would often have visits from relations. There was often a wee auntie who would ask me if I thought I had a vocation.  My blank face would prompt the follow up question, “Would you like to be a priest?” In fact I was more interested in becoming a cowboy like the ones in the Saturday morning cinema.

We often pray for vocations. This has become more important in a time when every diocese is running with fewer and fewer priests and religious orders are dwindling. That’s the story in the rich countries but in Africa and Asia there is no shortage of vocations to the religious life.

I think vocation is not properly understood today. We might have the expectation of an angel appearing before us with a personal message from God and pointing us in His direction. I don’t think that happens. I have two cousins who are nuns. They were based in England when one of them was instructed to go to America to serve there. Realising that she might never be back here they both came to stay with us for a few days in order to visit family before departing.

My younger daughter, finding it hard to understand how someone could give up a life and happiness, was full of questions. One of the sisters explained that her parents had opposed her vocation. They asked her to wait for a year and during that time they showered her with ‘good things’, a car, fine clothes and so on. At the end of that year she gave it all up and entered the order.

My daughter was amazed to see that my cousin carried all her possessions in one small carry-on bag. She really has no worldly goods. Strangely, you will never encounter a happier person. She is content with a life serving the poor, a life with a purpose.

It seems a bit strange that some should be singled out for a life of purpose, a life that can bring fulfilment. But surely that is not the case. God sees a purpose in every life. How often have you been to a funeral Mass where someone reads out a list of the achievements of the deceased? I can remember listening to lists of successes in business, property and holidays. I have heard of how a person’s worth can be measured in terms of worldly success. I think they always miss the point.

There is nothing wrong with owning your own home, your car and the things you need for life’s requirements. However, I don’t think these things are your purpose in life. We are living in a society where accumulation of wealth is the measure of a person. Leaders of big businesses are awarded bonuses of millions of pounds each year. Footballers can be paid more in a week than most people earn in a year. The divide between rich and poor is becoming greater with every budget statement.

It seems to be all about money. We all need money to pay the bills, buy the food, clothes, and pay the rent. What about all the rest? Actually we see less and less of money. Bills are paid straight from the bank. Salaries go into the bank. The money, for the most part, is just a number on a statement. I think that’s why billionaires buy large yachts moored in the Mediterranean and rarely used and large houses that nobody ever lives in. It’s the only way they can see their wealth. Adding a few zeroes on their bank account doesn’t convey any sense of richness. Having something concrete, even if they never use it, can reassure them that they are a success.

Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men of the nineteenth century, is quoted as saying “A man who dies rich dies disgraced.”  Carnegie gave away his fortune to build libraries and invest in universities because he realised that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake was meaningless. So what does give meaning to our lives? We can look to doctors and nurses who treat the sick and sustain life and see a real purpose. In looking to others who serve we often use the term vocation again. So it’s not just priests and religious who have a vocation. In fact we all have a vocation; we are all called by God for one purpose or another.

I remember reading an article about public health where the author pointed out that it’s not doctors and nurses who save most lives. It’s the men who build and maintain the sewerage systems who do most in the fight against disease. Just look to countries where there are no sewage systems for confirmation of that. This is repeated throughout human endeavour. Famous architects are credited with the building of iconic buildings but not a stone would be laid on a stone without the skilled artisans who bring plans to reality. Nothing happens without those unnamed, uncelebrated people who work.

In reality we all have a vocation, perhaps more than one. We are all created for a purpose. Human society is like a building and we are the bricks that make it up. Some parts of the building are seen and others are hidden from view but the fanciest bit of carved stone on a facade is no more important that the stones hidden in the foundations. Without the hidden foundations the building would soon collapse.

Perhaps we should stop praying for vocations and start praying for discernment. We all have a vocation but mostly we don’t recognise it. If we can’t see the vocation we can’t respond to it. But the implications of what I’m saying go further than that. We are all called by God for a purpose. That may be a calling to be a husband or wife, parent to children. That is a sacred calling and should be treated as such. We are scandalised to hear of a priest who does not take his vocation seriously but seldom apply the same standards to our own vocation.

So let’s start praying for the ability to recognise our vocation for what it is. Let’s start living out each day as a sacred calling where everything we do for each other is part of God’s plan for mankind. Taking this seriously brings us grace in everything we do. The morning offering prayer we learned as a child is simply a recognition of this.

I need to concentrate on doing what I do well. I can forget any dreams of playing for Celtic and scoring the winning goal. Any glory I will achieve will be in the simple things I do each day for my fellow humans, done in God’s name.