What Price Life?

What value do we place on human life? My column is published in the Scottish Catholic Observer this weekend. Get your copy in your local parish. If that’s not possible the full text will be here next Friday 26th April 2019

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Distraction

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 22nd March 2019

I’m not sure if it’s an age thing or the onset of dementia, but I think I’m getting to be easily distracted. When I should be concentrating on something important I can find myself going off on a tangent. This happens in all sorts of occasions. The most disturbing is when I’m distracted at Mass. It could be something said in the homily that makes me think, sometimes examining my own life in the light of what’s been said. Before I know it the service has moved on and I’m trying to catch up.

Simple tasks at home can be similarly affected. I can set out to make tea and notice something that needs to be put away. Before long I’m tidying the kitchen and the tea has been forgotten. The same thing happens in the shops. I’m sent to get bread and milk but when I’m wandering through Tesco trying to find where they’ve moved the milk to, I spot something I had meant to buy last week. I’m off to get my new purchase and before long I’m home without the bread. This does not go down well with my other half who can often be found muttering about care homes.

It’s not as if the distractions are not important. They are usually things that really need to be done. It’s good that I do the things that distract me but the problem is that I don’t do what I set out to do in the first place. I suppose I need to get my priorities right.

I’m finding that life as a Catholic is getting a bit like that now. The more I read about what’s going on in the Church, the more unsettled I feel. I think we are allowing ourselves to get a bit distracted. The issues of abuse in the Church, physical and sexual, homosexuality, the role of the Pope, the responsibility of the hierarchy; these important issues seem to be crowding out everything else. I’m not saying that these issues are not important but perhaps we need to stand back and see where we are going.

It seems like every day the news carries a story of child abuse in the Church. There is a big splash in the papers about a priest who has been accused of abuse and then you hear no more of it. A priest you know is removed from his parish and the word spreads. After police investigations the charges are dropped but that is not on the news. The Church investigation then starts so the priest is not returned to his parish. Later, when the Church finds no offence has been committed the priest can return to his post. Again there is nothing on the news. Unfortunately, not all cases are settled with a happy outcome.

Revelations keep coming out. Some of the offences occurred way back in the past but it all creates an impression of a Church riddled with offenders today. In fact, I get the impression that the Catholic Church is the only place where abuse is going on. However, this is not the case. Child abuse is going on in families, in schools and in all sorts of organisations we always thought were safe. The Catholic Church is not the source of most of the child abuse despite the impression crated by the media but it is surely the place where we would expect children to be safe.

It is the role of the media to expose scandals like child abuse and, despite the pain, we should be grateful to those who have shone a light on this. Every organisation should be aware of this problem and take steps to combat the threat to children. The Church set up an independent commission, the McLellan Commission in 2013 to investigate the problem in the Church and make recommendations. The Commission reported in 2015 and the Church has been working to implement the recommendations since then. The document “In God’s Image” outlines the Church’s policy.

The Church now requires every parish to implement its Safeguarding procedures. Those people, lay and religious, who are involved with children or vulnerable adults are investigated by Disclosure Scotland and must attain a certificate to prove their suitability. Further to this the Church will provide training for those involved, deal with allegations, provide support for survivors, support those accused and continually monitor the quality of our systems. This is not yet complete and it will take time to put everything in place but it is a greater response to the problem than I have seen in any organisation I have been involved with.

We must raise awareness and keep vigilant without this becoming a distraction from the real work of the Church. Christ instituted the Church to carry on His work of saving sinners, including those guilty of child abuse. We have to see our Safeguarding work as a natural part of the Church’s work in spreading the Gospel. Those found guilty of abuse will be dealt with in the legal system and the Church will have no role in shielding anyone from the law. It is important that the Church can continue to work to bring salvation to the abuser. Those guilty of abuse must still have access to the sacraments. The Parish Priest must agree conditions and procedures with the abuser to allow access without endangering children and vulnerable adults.

Attending church services should be a joyful and uplifting experience. I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that. Knowing that the Church is taking steps to maintain a safe environment for all should allow us to continue or Catholic practices with confidence. We are all responsible for the safety of others and knowing that there is a Safeguarding Coordinator and Parish Priest who will respond to any concerns we have should give us the reassurance we need in our parishes.

I’d like to think that we could put all this behind us and that we have a future where abuse does not exist. That is just a pipe dream. We have just become aware of something that has been going on in human society for a long, long time. It’s not going to go away but, God willing, we will now be better prepared to protect our children and vulnerable adults in our care.

Shame The Devil

Christmas is over. We know this because the cream eggs are out in the shops now; Easter is on its way. Easter arrives after a long Lent (well it always seems long to me). Ash Wednesday is on the 6th March and February is a short month so get ready.  During Lent we try to prepare ourselves for a holy Easter; move away from sin towards Heaven. This month I began to think about the causes of sin and, of course, the Devil.

A popular image of the Devil is found in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. Tom is shown with an angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. The angel is trying to persuade Tom to do good and the Devil is persuading him, usually successfully, to do bad. I think it’s quite a good description of the battle between good and evil. It works better for me than the image of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. I’m not keen on snakes and I can’t see myself being persuaded by one. But why is the Devil so persuasive? Surely the wee angel on your shoulder should do better than the Devil?

Just why is the Devil such a good tempter? How does he do it? I think he uses his secret weapon, the lie. Isn’t it surprising how well lies work in persuading people? The current state of politics on both sides of the Atlantic show how well lies work. Some politicians tell lies all the time. Their opponents expose the lies but people take no notice and continue to believe the lies. Why are we so vulnerable to lies? I think it’s because we tell ourselves lies to boost our ego. My wife tells me that I’m not fit to decorate the room; I’m too old and I had a heart attack. I reject that as nonsense as I’m as fit as I ever was. It’s only when I have to use the wee glyceryl trinitrate spray that I realise I’ve been lying to myself.

Satan tried this with Jesus when he offered Him the whole world if He would worship him. Jesus was human but He did know the truth and rejected Satan. We really know the truth about ourselves but our pride leaves us open to flattery.  The clever thing is that the Devil persuades us that we are choosing something good. We do know that the Devil can persuade us to do wrong but we kid ourselves that we are stronger than that. We deceive ourselves.

In the New Testament there are stories of people who become possessed by the Devil. In Luke 8:26, 39 we hear how Jesus cast out a legion of demons from one man, sent them into a herd of pigs and the pigs then drowned in the lake. Demonic possession is not so well accepted in modern times but in recent years there seems to more awareness of possession. The Church has priests who are trained in exorcism and there are more calls on them now. It’s not something we hear much about but you might be surprised. A few years ago I was at a conference in Leeds and got talking to a priest there. When heard where I was from he commented that that was an area with a surge in the number of exorcisms. I found that hard to believe but later found out that he was correct.

If this is a battle between good and evil what are the Devil’s tactics? I put myself in the Devil’s place (I’m not changing sides, just thinking) and I looked at where I would attack. The Devil is not one for frontal attacks so I suppose I would attack things that support the Faith. I would attack the family where we draw strength and support. I would attack the Church and the sacraments that bring us closer to God. I would attack the community of God and persuade people to think only as an individual.

Looking around I think the Devil has been busy. The family has come under attack in western society. Marriage has come under attack. When it can’t be abolished it can be weakened. We are now making marriage irrelevant. It is not seen as the cradle of the family but as a convenience for same sex couples. Now holding a traditional view of marriage is regarded as an attack on the rights of same sex couples. Actually, regarding people as being either male or female is now wrong. The latest thinking is ‘gender neutral’. Your gender is something you can just decide on a daily basis apparently. How do you keep families stable in that situation?

The attack on the Church has been Just as successful. It’s not an attack from the outside but from the inside. The sins of a minority of priests and the weakness of response by some bishops have put the whole Church on the spot. Crimes of abuse are being investigated all over the world and the Church’s image is being trashed everywhere. The abuse cases have caused many Catholics to leave the Church and have weakened the catholic community.

The community aspect of catholic life has been in decline for many years. When I was young every parish had a collection of societies and groups to cater for all ages. There were societies for men and others for women. I was a member of the Boy’s Guild and my dad was a member of the Sacred Heart confraternity. These things have largely gone. People are reluctant to join. Attendance at Sunday Mass is the last commitment and that’s only if there is no ‘game’ on.

The Devil likes us to stress our strengths and individualism. In thinking that we don’t need others we are weakened. In looking only to our own strengths we are weakened. How can we counter this? Where do our strengths lie? Paradoxically our strength lies in recognising our weakness. Knowing we are not strong enough to combat evil on our own we turn to God and that is where our strength lies.

The Church is not just a human organisation. Christ is the head of the Church and, as we see in the gospels, is stronger by far than any demon. It’s only through prayer that we can really accomplish anything good. There are lots of different forms of prayer; it’s not just the rosary. The prayer we need in the fight against evil is where we put ourselves into God’s presence and include Him in our thoughts and worries of the day. By having Christ share our lives we become stronger.

Coatbridge, my adopted home, has the motto ‘Laborare est orare’, To Work is to Pray. There is no better prayer than to offer God all we do each day. What we achieve will be all the greater for God’s involvement in it. If we truly offer our work to God, no matter how trivial that work may seem, it will play a part in the fight against the Devil and all his works.

More power to you in your work in 2019; just remember every unpleasant task you undertake, offered to God, is a blow against the Devil.

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on the 8th February 2019

Protecting my Smartkey Car

I’ve been reading more warnings about car thieves stealing cars by simply using a cheap electronic device to contact your key in your home and relaying the code to an accomplice who can then open your car, start it up and drive off; all while you are asleep and the key safely in the house.

Manufacturers are looking at ways to foil the thieves but while we await a hi-tech solution, here’s a simple precaution you can take. Just keep the key in what physicists call a Faraday cage. That might sound complex but it is simply a metal enclosure to block radio waves. I post a picture of my Faraday cage below.

car key in a tin
My simple Faraday cage

As you can see this is a simple small tin box. This one came with chocolate peanuts from Marks & Spencer but any small tin will do. I keep my key in this at night and can sleep soundly, knowing it won’t be too easy to steal my car.

Christmas is Revolting

merry christmas

Well, that was Christmas. I was really looking forward to the Christmas holiday. As someone who has retired I suppose it’s odd to think of this as a holiday since I’m not off to work on other days. What’s so special about Christmas for me to think of it as a holiday? It’s a time to step out of the normal routine, a time for eating and drinking, a time for Santa Clause and children. It’s about giving presents, peace on earth and goodwill to all men.

Christmas is, for many, a time to travel. Some are heading off to the sun for a winter break while many are heading back to family celebrations. How often have we seen Christmas travel disrupted by problems on the railways or by traffic jams. This Christmas we had Gatwick airport closed by a drone scare and tens of thousands of people had their journeys disrupted. I suppose that could be seen as very similar to that first Christmas when Joseph and Mary had to go on a journey with a baby on the way. They had no accommodation and the baby was born in a stable.

Did Christmas work for you? Me neither. I suspect many people feel a bit like I do, glad when it’s over and back to the routine. So how did I get it wrong? For some people Christmas is a time of crisis. There are homeless people and families struggling to stretch their meagre resources to make a Christmas experience for their children. Most of these parents manage to provide for their children, usually by self-sacrifice. Expectations of Christmas have grown, fuelled by the advertising industry. We are persuaded to buy the latest toy for our children, the expensive jewellery or technology for our loved ones and to provide a Christmas banquet for all the family.

The result can be families at breaking point. Marriage guidance services can tell us of the increase in requests for help in the post-Christmas months. The strain on families often proves just too much. So much for peace and good will.

Businesses were sounding the alarm when sales did not soar as they had hoped before Christmas. They relied on a surge in buying to keep their business alive. Christmas is a big commercial festival. Perhaps that is a clue to what’s going wrong with Christmas. I’m now having to rethink my ideas of Christmas.

I’ve been thinking of Christmas as the birthday of Jesus and we are having a birthday celebration. That’s the story for the children. As an adult, should I be looking for a deeper meaning? The birth of Jesus was God coming to join us, but it was not His decision alone. Mary was asked for her consent for Jesus to be born for us. She gave her consent and the world was changed for ever. Now there is a clue there. God is all powerful and could just decide to put his plan into action but He didn’t. Christmas is not something God imposed on us. Mankind had to agree and cooperate in the plan.

That first Christmas was God making good on his promise to send someone who would change the world. He didn’t intend to set up an international public holiday, he was starting a revolution. Most revolutions are marked by a single event that captures the imagination and triggers the revolt. In France the storming of the Bastille marked the start of the French Revolution. In Russia the storming of the Winter Palace was seen as the start of theirs. These were violent events that were more symbolic than effective. The first Christmas was not violent and was probably the most significant in human history.

Like all revolutions ours never really ends. There are always counter revolutions and attempts to reject the new order. Christ’s revolution is still being opposed by the world. Jesus brought a new way of thinking into the world. He rejected hate and replaced it with love. His command is to love your neighbour and see each other as brothers and sisters rather than enemies. You only have to look at a newspaper to see how that is being rejected all over the world. Perhaps then we can understand why Christianity is under attack all over the world. The Christian revolution is attacked with violence in many parts of the world and is attacked by more subtle means here.

Now I’m seeing Christmas Day as the focal point of our revolution. It’s Christian equivalent of “Remember the Alamo” or a commemoration of the storming of the Bastille. The reason we don’t recognise this is that it’s peaceful revolution. This is a revolution that rejects hate and violence and uses the power of love instead. Christmas is our reminder that the revolution goes on.

Now, if I’m a revolutionary how do I carry on my revolt? I can’t go about attacking those who oppose me because that would be against the revolutionary principles I’m promoting. No, I need to go about my revolution by changing myself. I can’t counteract hate and violence by violent means. I’ll have to rid myself of aggressive attitudes and replace them with love. I need to see others as my brothers and sisters, not enemies. If Christmas is about giving then I need to look at what I give.

The Christmas gifts that count are not scented candles and shiny baubles. The gifts that count are gifts of myself. How ready am I to share what I have and, more importantly, what I am. We’re not good at giving away things we no longer need. (My wife is very good at giving away things she thinks I no longer need.) We are even worse at giving away what we do need. We can easily become a captive of our possessions. So powerful is the advertising industry that we are reluctant to give up things we may never have made use of. Hoarding has become a massive problem for some.

More importantly, we are not so good at sharing ourselves. Every one of us has gifts and talents that we can put to good use in helping others. We might be the person who can always get a car started on a frosty morning or can mind a child while the parent is busy. We must put these talents to good use in our revolution. Just as revolutionaries would attack and dominate their opponents we must love and serve our brothers and sisters.

Perhaps you remember the slogan, “A puppy is not just for Christmas.” That was intended to make people realise that dog ownership was a year round thing. Well perhaps we should adopt the slogan “Christmas is not just for Christmas.” Every day should be my day of peace and goodwill to all mankind. Every day is my opportunity to bring love into other people’s lives. Just like a good revolutionary, I can’t sit about waiting for something to happen. I need to make things happen. I need to make Christ’s revolution real and part of everyone’s life.

If I manage this then I won’t need any New Year’s resolutions this year, I’ll have an all year revolution instead.

Who’s The Teacher

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 14th December 2018

The Icon

I had an opportunity to see the new icon of ‘Jesus Our Teacher’ which has been touring round the diocese of Scotland. The icon was designed by Bernadette Reilly and commemorates the passing of the 1918 Education Act which enabled Catholic, Jewish and Episcopal schools to be incorporated into the State System, providing the finance which those religions had been supplying. Catholic and Episcopal schools are still in the system.

The icon, with Jesus as the central figure, tells the story of Catholic education in Scotland and shows the immigrant peoples bringing their faith from places like Poland, Lithuania and Ireland. Like all icons, the closer you look, the more you see. It certainly caused me to think about my own experience of education and the people who influenced me.

My schooling was in Catholic schools and I got the benefit of sound religious teaching as well as a good grounding that stood me in good stead for the future. I taught in secondary schools for twenty five years and spent six years tutoring at Glasgow University. I suppose I’ve seen the education system from both sides. What I remember most is the people rather than the system. I found there were individual teachers who left their mark on me; sometimes just by a casual remark that gave me in insight into a different way of thinking.

In my teaching career I sometimes encountered the debate about whether we were teaching a subject or teaching pupils. The answer is both of course but I found there were teachers who were inspired by their interest in the pupils to go a little further to make their subject interesting.

The icon made me reflect on the idea of Jesus as a teacher. He had no qualifications and never took a class but he taught people, not subjects. That made me think about who are the teachers and the importance of schools. There seems to be a growing body of parents who prefer to home school rather than send their children to school. I think they miss out on the important aspect of schools. That is that they bring children into contact with talented, skilled teachers. Staying at home is a missed opportunity.

Schools are not the only places where learning goes on and it is not only qualified teachers who teach. Parents are the first teachers a child encounters. Their job is vital. If parents fail in their initial formation of the child it will not get the full benefit of schooling. The child learns to talk from the parents talking to it. The child learns the basic skills of living at home. Parents can engender a love of reading by reading stories to the child (even if it is only to get them to sleep.) The child builds up its vocabulary and understanding of language in listening to parents, but it’s more than that.

Children develop attitudes from listening to the parents talk. I’m thinking of my own children. What attitudes did I impart to them? Did I show them how to be good citizens? Did I encourage them to be helpful to others? Did I encourage them to love God? I don’t really know the answers to those questions but it makes me think. Jesus taught with authority in the Synagogue but his real teaching was done in what he did and the stories he told. I wonder if I did enough.

Of course, learning is not something confined to childhood. We continue to learn long after we leave formal education. John Dewey, an American educationalist, regarded learning as a sign of life. If you stop learning, he thought, you are not fully alive. Learning as an adult may take place in formal classes or in training courses at work but that is only a small part of learning. We learn from books and magazines. I learn all sorts of things from reading the Scottish Catholic Observer. I find out what’s happening in the church and I also develop my understanding of my religion from reading some informative contributors. Mostly I learn from people.

I was struck by a reading at Mass the other day.

You must preach the behaviour which goes with healthy doctrine. It is for you to preach the behaviour which goes with healthy doctrine. The older men should be reserved, dignified, moderate, sound in faith and love and constancy. Similarly, the older women should behave as though they were religious, with no scandal-mongering and no habitual wine-drinking..

Titus 2:1-8

I cut this short to leave out the bit about wives should obey their husbands as it might get me into trouble at home. The passage makes clear that we are to be teachers by the way we behave. It’s not a case of do what I say but it’s about teaching by doing. My issue is that I would probably be regarded as an older man and I should be reserved, dignified and moderate. I’ve just been looking after my five year old twin grandsons and none of those adjectives could apply. Nobody would describe hiding in the hall cupboard in a game of hide and seek as dignified.

However I like to think that Jesus would hide in the hall cupboard in my situation. Spending time with children and having fun with them is one way of showing you love them; you don’t need to put it into words. The same thing applies to adults. You might just spend a few minutes listening to someone’s tale of woe but giving them your time shows that you value them. That was the kind of teaching Jesus often did. He spent time with the people who were ostracised from polite society and showed them that they were valued.

What does Jesus expect us to teach? Surely it comes down to the basic commandment; love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. You can do that with a simple comment or even just a smile. I remember our careers master asking me how I had got on with my application to join the Royal Airforce. I told him I couldn’t fly as I was found to be colour-blind. He said “What’s for you will not go by you”. I was feeling pretty miserable at the time but it made me think and I realised that God had a plan for me and for everyone. I was still disappointed but I had learned an important lesson about our relationship with God.

Sometimes you can pass on an important lesson with a simple comment. You can only do that if you engage with people and you can only succeed when you are being positive. It’s too early for a New Year’s Resolution but I’m going to make the effort from now on to be that positive influence on those I meet. No more wee grumpy guy.