What’s Happening in the Catholic Church? – My September Column.

This article was published in te Scottish Catholic Observer on 22nd September 2017.

So what’s happening in the Church?

I was recently asked by the editor of this esteemed paper, “What’s happening in the Church, Joe?”

My immediate response was, “I don’t know.” Well, I don’t have any contacts in the Vatican and the Archbishop has never called me up to explain what’s on the agenda. So how would I know what’s happening in the Church?

On further reflection I wondered just what the question really meant. What’s meant by ‘the Church’ and where is it all happening? Reading the Catholic press and social media I hear of calls to return to our old ways. Latin in the Mass, the priest facing east and losing the Vatican II stuff, it all seems to be in the air. Young people are flocking to the traditional rite. There are calls for us to go back to the Mass as it was before Vatican II.

To be honest I’ve just been dismissing all this as the older generation refusing to move on. I can still remember debating the use of Latin in the Mass with my grandfather back in the early sixties before Vatican II. My grandfather argues that Latin was the language of the Universal Church and the Mass was exactly the same all over the world. We could go to mass in the farthest corner of the world and it would be exactly as it was at home. I argued that we could go to Mass anywhere in the world and not understand what was being said; just like at home.

The problem is I’m now the one who is old and it seems the call for change is coming from the young. Confronted with this revelation (am I really an oldie? – Yes you are.) I’m forced to revisit the old arguments and see if I think we need to change. I grew up with the traditional rite. I well remember the solemn dignity of the Latin Mass; the silences when the priest, facing away from us, recited the Latin prayers and we looked on in awe. We didn’t all sit in awe. I also remember the wee ladies who sat and recited the rosary all the way through Mass. That did strike me as strange.

It has to be said that the Mass is the Eucharist and it is Christ’s sacrifice which is at its core. The language we use does not change that. So what’s the big deal? Have we lost some of the dignity of the Mass in the modern rite? Are we not showing the respect that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist deserves?

A few years ago I was at Mass in the traditional rite. To be honest I felt that I had lost something that day. I had lost involvement. I was a spectator in a rite that was being conducted by the priest with his back to me, quietly going through the words of the mass in a language I don’t understand even if I could have heard what he was saying. There was great dignity and we knelt at the altar rails to receive the Eucharist but I felt excluded.

I have also heard people of my own age complaining that the Mass is too busy and we don’t get time to kneel and pray in that important time after communion  with Christ within us. That is surely a serious complaint?

That brought me to the core of the matter, prayer. Why do we go to Mass? Many a lapsed friend has pointed out to me that they can just as easily say their prayers at home. Is there more to it than that? It seems to me that we have misunderstood the nature of prayer. Is prayer all about telling God what we need and giving Him the praise He needs? That can’t be right. God knows our needs better than we do. Who are we, with our very shaky understanding of what God is, to reassure Him with our praise? No, when Jesus taught the apostles to pray the Our Father He was teaching a prayer that reminds us of God’s greatness and tells us what we can expect from God. When we say “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” are we implying that God would lead us into temptation if we didn’t ask Him? I think we are being reminded that God is leading us out of temptation and has delivered us from evil by His sacrifice on the cross.

We come to Mass as a body, not as individuals making our own contact with God. The Mass is reinforcing the message of who we are. We are all parts of the Mystical Body of Christ. That is reaffirmed in our communion when we are united with Christ, and logically with each other through Christ. We are not kneeling down here with God somewhere up there. Christ rose from the dead and the living Christ is with us and we are part of Him.

My vivid memory of my visit to India is of an old man in a loincloth greeting me, hands joined and bowing. The explanation I was given was that he was paying homage to the deity within me. That seems to be something we have not fully grasped in the West. We were always taught that we are temples of the Holy Spirit but it didn’t seem to sink in with me. If the Holy Spirit is within you how can I behave towards you with anything other than love?

In our modern rite we have the ‘Sign of Peace’ where we greet our neighbours. It can seem like an incongruous break in the formality of the Mass. In reality it is an opportunity for us to formally recognise that deity within our neighbour as we greet the God within them. It is a formal recognition that we are one body. When we are commanded to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ you are not being told to treat others as you would wish to be treated. You are being told that your neighbour is part of yourself. We are all one body.

I’d like to make one last comparison between old and new rites. I remember Canon Rooney standing on the pulpit giving the children a translation and explanation of what was going on in the Mass. The priest would face the congregation and say “Ite missa est.” The Canon would translate as “Go the Mass is ended”.

However that’s not what the priest said at all. A better translation would be “Go on your mission”. Today we are told to “Go and love and serve the Lord.” That’s a bit more accurate. The Mass isn’t ended. Mass is going on somewhere across the globe as you read this. Leaving the Church is not the end of the Mass it is the beginning. We go out on our mission to spread the Gospel in our everyday lives, recognising Christ in our neighbours be they locals or refugees on the other side of the world.

The Mass is the Mass in whatever language you celebrate it. I’m happy to go with the vernacular when I have a better chance of deepening my understanding. I’m for facing east to await the coming of Christ because He is all around me.

My August Column – Full Text – What Are You Then?

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 25th August 2017

In my first job on leaving school I found myself manning an exhibit at a trade fair in East Kilbride. I was demonstrating a new, high tech measuring system based on fluidics rather than electronics. I stood there day after day answering questions about the technology, the advantages and possible applications. I was ready for any question that is until that lady came along.

She was a politician, a Member of Parliament and she stumped me with her first question. I was busy explaining the intricacies of our world changing (but now long forgotten) device when she stopped me and asked “What are you?”

I mumbled something about being a civil servant but the damage was done. I realised that I couldn’t really answer the question to my own satisfaction. How do we define what we are? Perhaps we can be defined by wealth.

In today’s world we see directors and chief executive officers getting enormous salaries and bonuses on top. Even the most spendthrift wife could never manage to spend it all. They really just need the money as a mark of their status. The company needs to pay the money to keep up with or even surpass the competition. It’s about defining what they are. Football clubs are willing to pay millions of pounds to buy star players. Why not train up some young players who might prove to be just as good? Buying the most expensive player is a mark of their status in the football world.

The player gets paid more in a week than some earn in lifetime of work. Does he need it? Does he know what to do with it? Often the answer is no. The money gives him status. It marks him out from the run of the mill players. It tells us that he is a superstar.

Social status is another way of defining what we are. Being the monarch clearly defines what you are. Similarly, having a title tells people that you are a cut above the rest. In a stratified society like ours your position in the hierarchy tells those below you that their respect is demanded. Having said that I must confess that I once worked with a colleague who was a belted earl and you could not meet a friendlier, more generous person. However, he was not just a colleague – he was a sir.

Climbing the social ladder is never easy. Your choice of parents will set your starting point. If you apply yourself you might rise up the scale while carelessness could see you in a rapid descent. Possessions provide an easier route to the top. Driving the right car can be a social marker that many can attain. What car do you drive? Does it turn heads as you glide into the car park at Gleneagles; the location is important too, although I once saw a Daimler parked at Lidl. Lidl could be seen as a marker of my social standing I suppose.

If your possessions or your job can help define what you are then you have a measure of control over what you are. You can choose what you want to be. As a boy I wanted to be a pilot and if the RAF had not found me to be colour blind, that’s what I might have been. So if we can choose what we are how do we decide? What should I aim to be?

We can take advice from other people. People with more experience of the world can often point us in the direction of things we never knew existed. My grandfather’s ambition for me was to be a draughtsman. He saw me sitting at a drawing board in an office far above the factory floor drawing plans for the things the workforce would have to manufacture. In his view I would be ‘somebody’. Not seeing things from his perspective I ignored his advice.

Doing some careers guidance in school I was always at pains to advise pupils not to decide on what they were to be. How was I supposed to know what was the best thing for every pupil? My advice was to choose subjects that gave them the widest options later on. Lets’ face it, most people end up doing something completely different from what they thought they would be.

If we are looking for advice we should really look to someone who knows. As Christians we often turn to God when faced with a difficult choice. So what vision does God have for us? What does he want us to be? In my old ‘penny catechism’ the answer to “Why did God make us?” is “To know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world.”

There you have it. God wants me to be a servant. In terms of status that seems pretty low. There are many kinds of servants. I could be a waiter in a restaurant, a steward on the flight taking you to Lanzarote or the man who empties your bins. If everyone was a servant who would we serve? Who would do the high status jobs?

That was puzzling me ‘till half way through writing this article I had a heart attack. My wife whisked me off to Monklands Hospital where I found myself in real pain. The team sprang into action. If you ever watched motor racing on TV you will have seen the cars coming into the pits. A team scrambles round and everyone does their bit to get the car fuelled, tyres changed and back in the race in seconds. That was nothing compared to the team of doctors and nurses who swarmed round me and put me firmly in the land of the living.

There were doctors and specialist nurses, all high status and all of them servants. Being a servant is about doing what God sent us here to do. You could be the CEO of a large multinational and be a servant if you are looking after the interests of all of those in your charge – not just the balance sheets.

Now I don’t think God caused my heart attack so that I could get the answer to my question but I think I can see more clearly that if I am to be anything of importance I must be a servant. If I’m only concerned with earning millions or having worldwide fame I’m surely fairly worthless. I can’t think of any ‘A’ list celebrity who has an impact on my life. On the other hand if there were no doctors, nurses, bin men, bakers (the list goes on) life would become impossible.

Now I need to explore how I can become a servant, someone who plays a part in bringing about God’s kingdom on Earth for the benefit of my fellow man. I should be able to do that no matter what my status in life. If I’m an ‘A’ list celebrity I can use my position for the good of others. If I’m just a grumpy wee bald guy I can still look to the needs of those around me and make an effort to give them priority.

In finishing I’d like to thank the staff at Monklands and Hairmyres hospitals without whom this article would have been left half finished.