Leprosy Today?

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 31st January 2020.

In the readings at Mass recently we have had some example of encounters Jesus had with sufferers of leprosy. I can still remember the descriptions my teachers gave of the horrible effects of this dreaded disease. This was something that people could get in biblical times and we were not in any danger of contracting it. It was only when I was older that I learned that leprosy is still a big problem in some parts of the world but it is treatable.

More recently I learned that leprosy was a notable feature in Scotland’s history. Robert The Bruce, king of Scotland from 1306 ‘till 1329, suffered from leprosy. Recent research has discovered that his nose and mouth were distorted by the disease. I’m sure he was not the only one in Scotland to suffer that problem. So why is leprosy so prominent in the Gospels?

Leprosy can be spread by contact so lepers were excluded from normal society. People shunned them and forced them to live apart. Disease and disablement was regarded as a punishment for sin so lepers got little sympathy from normal society. They were sinners after all. This may explain the prominence of lepers in the Gospels. Jesus’ approach to lepers was very different from the norm. We read of Jesus not only curing the lepers but actually touching them. This must have been shocking to the Jewish society he lived in.

The message He was giving was not only that he could release the lepers from a dreaded disease but that he could release them from the terrible sin they carried the blame for. If Jesus could do that for the lepers then he could release all of us from the grip of sin. Jesus, the only sinless man, did not shun the sinner but accepted him and took on the burden of that sin. There is hope for all of us.

A few years ago, on a visit to India, I visited a leper clinic. Lepers came there for treatment. Some who were detected early were cured by medication while others who had suffered some disfigurement were treated surgically. All were cured. Not all went home after their cure. Some had no option but to stay there with the Servite Sisters who run the clinic. There is a small community there who help to keep the clinic running by producing things for sale and maintaining the buildings and grounds.

I met three young girls who had been cured by medication but could not go home. The people in their village would not accept them. This was partly due to fear of leprosy and partly a belief that they were not acceptable, untouchable in a place of a higher caste. I met an older man who has undergone surgery to restore the use of his hands. He put his hands to work in maintaining the clinic grounds. He would not be accepted home either.

A couple of years later I was in a leper community in Liberia. The SMA missionary I was staying with, Fr. Garry Jenkins, had set up a mobile clinic. The clinic visited various villages in turn to check for signs of leprosy in the population. In this village the nurses checked the sufferers and issued their medication. They checked the children for any signs of the disease. There was no sign of rejection here. Everyone seemed happy. I was able to mingle with them as I did in any African village. Shaking hands was not a problem.

I could feel good about myself. I didn’t shun anyone on account of their leprosy. Did that make me a good, tolerant person? I understood the nature of the disease and how it could be cured. I didn’t harbour any prejudice. Time to polish up my halo? Well not quite.

Are there any other people I would shun? Are there people I would rather steer clear of? Not really, other than those who might fall outside ‘acceptable’ society. That could be supporters of a football team I don’t like or a political party I find unacceptable. There could be criminals who have committed terrible crimes that I couldn’t accept. Surely I’m not expected to associate with them?

What about immigrants who come here and don’t speak our language. They keep their own customs and dress differently. They don’t even eat the same kinds of foods that we eat, preferring foods I’ve never seen before and probably wouldn’t like. Would it be a good idea to stay away from people like that?

Then there are people who might look just like me but seem to have a strange way of thinking. They could be nationalists or unionists, leavers or remainers. I wouldn’t expect to get on with people whose ideas are strangely different from mine. What about religion? Some people believe in religions that are at odds with my religion. They may believe in gods I don’t accept. They may believe in the same God that I believe in but they don’t accept that I’m right and they are wrong. Is there any basis for getting on together in that situation?

Jesus accepted the lepers. He associated with them and touched them. I’ve done the same in India and Africa so I must be ok. However, leprosy is not a big problem for me. I don’t have any fear of contracting it. Even if I did, the visitor we had from Lepra, the charity that helps those with leprosy,  has assured us that it can be easily cured. No. I’m ok with lepers but I may have substituted my own lepers.

If I really want to follow Jesus and be a real Christian then there is no room for excluding people. To behave like Christ I must accept people with different views, different politics, different religions even different lifestyles and moral values. Being a Christian is about accepting not rejecting. I don’t have to accept their lifestyle, their politics, their customs or their religion but I must accept them as brothers and sisters.

Please note I didn’t say this was going to be easy. Some people will not accept my views, lifestyle, beliefs or religion. They may reject me and shun me but I can’t reject or shun them. Jesus was rejected and crucified by people in His time but in His dying words asked the Father to forgive them. I am expected to take up my cross and follow Him and do my best to bring others to Christ, not reject them. Now I have not painted a rosy picture of Christian life. It does seem hard, if not impossible but help is at hand. I firmly believe that God does not expect us to do the difficult things without help. The Holy Spirit is always around and can enable us to do things we never imagined we could. We only have to ask.

Who Are The Lepers Now?

Does the thought of leprosy make your skin crawl? Is it something confined to Bible stories? Is it relevant to your life today?

Read my column in this weeks Scottish Catholic Observer. You can get it in your local parish if you are quick. Don’t worry if you are too late as I will post the full text next week (but you would miss all the other good stuff).

It’s That Time of Year Again

This article was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on 20th Dec 2019.

I suppose you have noticed that Christmas is coming. You can hardly miss it; the shops are full of clues like Christmas lights, decorations, images of Santa and reindeer. I was looking at a range of charity Christmas cards in a popular store the other day and even found one card that had the word, ‘Christmas’. The shelves are stuffed with toys for all the girls and boys and I suppose that’s what we think about at this time. Christmas is an exciting time for children.

Children are preparing for Christmas, playing parts in the Nativity Play; could be Joseph or Mary or probably one of the angel chorus. Children are encouraged to work on their behaviour. Santa’s helpers will be keeping an eye on everyone and Santa is making up his list. Everyone is being good so they get moved up Santa’s list. Parents are getting the Christmas menu sorted out for the big Christmas Day dinner. Writing the Christmas cards and wrapping the gifts takes hours. Christmas Day sees us at mass and gathering round the crib to see the baby Jesus.

The children gaze at the holy child, the picture of innocence we are all encouraged to emulate. Even the animals push in close to be near Jesus. This is the Holy Family that all our families should be like. Christmas is a great time for families.

Of course it’s not like that for everyone. Occasionally we get one or maybe two people at Midnight Mass who have had a wee bit too much to drink. Sometimes they just sit there but some can be a bit noisy. Often you find that they haven’t been to Mass for a long time. They fell away years ago because they couldn’t deal with it. They were put off by the guilt that many feel and then they feel they don’t belong. For some reason they feel called back and the alcohol dims the guilt feeling.

Christmas is seen as a happy time for the good, the innocent and the holy but not for the sinners and the excluded. It’s about the good people welcoming the Baby Jesus and singing Christmas Carols, isn’t it? Well, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s wrong. Christmas is the birthday of Jesus but that’s not the beginning. Jesus is the Son of God and He was around for a long time before the first Christmas. He was around before there was time actually. Christmas was the coming of the Son on a mission.

It’s the mission the Holy Child was sent on that gives Christmas its significance. This child was sent to change the world. Jesus was to grow into a man who broke the rules. The Son of God did not associate with princes and kings. He lived among the ordinary people and the poor. There were people in that society that decent people did not associate with. Jesus kept company with tax collectors and fallen women. He wasn’t very nice to some of the important people.

Jesus had come to save the sinners, the excluded and the lost. When challenged about his choice of associates he replied that it is the sick who need the doctor, not the healthy. In a sense Christmas is really all about sinners. If there were no sinners there would be no need for Jesus to come to save them. However there never seems to be a shortage of sinners. We were all innocent children once but living in the world, we find it difficult to avoid sin.

It is useful to remember that we are all sinners but we must not let feelings of guilt cause us to despair. Jesus brought the message that we are all saved and He saved us by His death and resurrection. Of course Jesus didn’t leave it at that. He formed his Church with Peter as its rock. It is our mission to continue His work of saving sinners.

How do we go about that? Well, I suppose we should take our lead from Jesus. He did not point the finger of accusation at the sinner. He, who was sinless, beckoned to the sinner to come to Him. Do we do the same? Are we ready to welcome the sinner, the outcast or the inebriated man at the back of the church?

I think we are very good at recognising and helping the poor and the sick. We contribute to charities like SCIAF and MISSIO to bring aid to the poor all over the world. We contribute to the Saint Vincent DePaul collections to help those who have fallen on hard times nearer home. Schools put together Christmas parcels and distribute them to old folk living on limited means. How good are we at reaching out to the others?

Our prisons are overflowing with convicted prisoners. Some of them get visitors while others may be far from home and have nobody to reach out to them. How good are we at accepting those prisoners when they are released from prison? Do we welcome them warmly or do we view them with suspicion, seeing them as guilty men? (I know they are not all men.)

How would Christ see them? Would He reject them and turn away? I don’t think so. I think Jesus would not condemn them but offer them forgiveness and salvation. Remember, Jesus came to change the world. As a Christian I’m compelled to continue that task of changing the world. That sounds impossible but I’m not on my own. There are millions of us all over the world with that same task.

How do I start this change? Well I first of all need to bring about change in myself. I need to start by changing how I see other people. Do I look down on the inebriated man at the back of the church or do I recognise someone who has been moved to come to Christ even if he doesn’t realise it? Do I condemn or do I welcome?

This Christmas I’ll try to see the crib a bit differently; not just the Baby Jesus for children to wonder at but the Son of God calling out to all the sinners (me included) to come back to Him. I need to remember that no matter what we have done, what sins we have committed, what hurts we may have caused, the Baby Jesus doesn’t see our guilt but our need of forgiveness.

This Christmas is a time for rejoicing. It’s a time for sinners to rejoice because Jesus does not condemn us but wants to welcome us. Nobody is excluded, no matter what their story is. If Jesus can reach out to everyone who am I to look down on anyone?

I’m looking forward to Christmas and I will get caught up in all the usual preparations but this year I’ll try to get busy changing myself into the kind of person Jesus calls us all to be. I hope your preparations don’t get too hectic. Have a joyful Christmas this year. If you are a sinner like me just remember Christmas is all about us sinners.

Loneliness – My Column full text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 12th July 2019.

I was recently in the Braes of Glenlivet attending the annual Scalan Mass. Luckily the weather was kind and we enjoyed sunshine although the wind was rather cold. It’s a long time since I had visited the area and driving from place to place I remarked on the distance between neighbours. This is a feature of rural life we tend to forget. There is no chance of nipping round the corner to the shop if you run out of milk here.

Loneliness in the farming community has been highlighted recently. Farms are no longer places where the work is done by manual labour. Farms don’t have crowds of farmhands pitching in to get the work done. Mechanisation has taken over much of the hard labour but also makes farming a more isolated occupation. The psychological effects of isolation take their toll on health and lifespan.

I wondered if I could adapt to living in relative isolation like country folk. When the children were young we enjoyed holidays here. Getting away from the bustle and noise was refreshing but that was only for a short time. We were soon home enjoying a less lonely existence.

Of course I’m thinking of ourselves living near family and friends with neighbours close by. That is not the reality that many people experience living in our towns and cities. Recent surveys have found that more and more homes are occupied by one person. There are many reasons for this. Among older people the death of a spouse leaves the widow alone in their home. Younger people leave home, often moving away to work, and find themselves alone in a flat in an unfamiliar city.

Marriage breakup results in one household becoming two single occupier households. Young people who have to leave care find themselves living alone without the support they have been used to. Strangely, in a modern society where technology has given us the means to communicate across the world instantly, loneliness is becoming a major problem. The human need to contact others is often not being met.

Now you might think this is a social problem and I’m going off topic in a Catholic paper. I would suggest that if we take a closer look we might find that this is at the root of our religion. Admittedly there is nothing in the Ten Commandments about loneliness and I can’t remember anything in the Catechism about it. However if we go back to the very start, the book of Genesis, where we see how God created the world we get a picture of what God intended for us.

In Chapter two we get a description of the Garden of Eden and all the resources God puts there to meet man’s needs, water and plants. God fashions man out of the earth and breathes life into him. Then, when had settled man in the garden He looked at what he had done and decided something was missing.

“Yahweh God said ‘It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.’”

Genesis 2: 18

Now we often take this passage and find in it the message that it is natural for man and woman to be a couple. I’m just looking at the first part where God plainly tells us that it is not good for man to be alone. It’s clearly not God’s intention that we should be alone and Genesis is giving the Church a clear message about loneliness.

So what can the Church do to combat loneliness? The first thing I notice is that the Church instructs us to attend Mass on a Sunday. This clearly brings us into contact with other people on a regular basis. There we meet people who we have something in common with and provides the opportunity to arrange other contacts. Sunday Mass is not the controlling burden some might imagine, it is a positive step in preventing loneliness. When I was younger there were all sorts of Church organisations that sprung from this. There were societies for women, for men and for the young, all of them bringing us into contact with others.

Times have changed and much of this activity has died away. The nature of parish life has changed with many people attending Mass in other parishes and not getting involved in their own parish. I must confess to being part of that problem. We moved house a couple of years ago, just along the road. That put us just over the parish boundary. Because we have various roles in the parish we continue to attend our original church. We need to rethink how our parishes respond to the growing problem of loneliness.

A good example of what can be done is in our parish in Coatbridge. We have a tearoom in the hall behind the church. The tearoom is open every day after the ten o’clock mass and stays open ‘till late in the afternoon. Because the church is on the main street the tearoom is a convenient meeting place for all sorts of people. It is staffed by volunteers and provides a lunch at minimal cost. People can meet friends there and sit all day with a cup of tea and nobody asks them to move. It is a warm place where people of all religions or none can find a friendly welcome.

Our parish priest has an eye for lost souls. Many people have gone in to the tearoom, knowing nobody and before long they have a job to do. Soon they can be part of the volunteer staff keeping the tearoom going for the benefit of others. This is the real answer to loneliness, including people. At Mass we are invited to include the person beside us at the Sign of Peace. It’s a simple act, a handshake and a smile. I was surprised recently to see someone on Twitter complaining that he was expected to do this. He claimed he would refuse take part. How many of us are unhappy about the Sign of Peace? Do we just give a quick handshake or do we make eye contact? Do we smile? Is there any warmth behind the gesture we make? Now I’ve said this before and it is true. We will never know how our words and actions have an effect on other people. We don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head and the right word or gesture at the right moment can make a big difference to someone who is struggling. God decided it was not right for Adam to be lonely. Perhaps it’s time we all came to the same conclusion and opened up to others.

Journey


I’ve been planning three journeys this year. I’m going up to the Scalan mass in June then in July I’m going to Benbecula for an ordination. I’m no sooner home from that than I’m off to Canada to visit my son and his family. I used to enjoy journeys but I don’t find them so interesting now. Maybe I’m getting old. (You don’t need to agree with that too quickly)

I don’t enjoy driving on long journeys on busy roads. The traffic is heavy and you really need to keep a good lookout for people doing foolish things. You don’t get a chance to see what’s around you. Flying is no better. Our flight to Canada will entail going to Manchester, the only way we can get a direct flight to Vancouver. Glasgow to Vancouver was always popular but that’s gone. Long waits at airports are a real pain.

We go on journeys to find something. I’m going to the Scalan to find and celebrate a little bit of our history. The other journeys are to catch up with family and find out how they are living. Most of all I suppose I’m going on journeys to find something about myself. It used to be fashionable to go on a journey to find yourself. The Beatles went to India to spend time with the Maharishi and find themselves. That puzzled me at the time. I thought that was strange to look for yourself in a place you had never visited before..

I’ve since realised that they were probably right. When you move out of your normal environment and encounter different people in different cultures it shows up aspects of your own life you took for granted. Travelling in Africa I’ve encountered people who would give you their last cup of water or bowl of rice. That made me question my own commitment to others. I might give some spare money to a charity but these people literally gave away all they had.

Young people are often encouraged to take a ‘gap year’ to find themselves before getting into work. The emphasis is all about ‘me’. We are encouraged to empower ‘me’. To achieve our potential we must concentrate on ‘me’. We are in a modern cult of ‘me’. We have become the focus and centre of our own lives. I think this is a mistake

Life is a journey. Not just cradle to grave but a journey from being a baby knowing nothing growing to discover the world and our place in it. Some have a long journey and some have a short one. Do we get tired of the problems we encounter and miss the interesting things on the way? Life throws up problems that can threaten to overwhelm us and we worry so much we risk missing the important stuff. It can be easy to miss finding out who we really are. Sometimes we are defined by where we live or the job we do. Sometimes it’s about what we own. All of these miss the real ‘me’.

Now I never remember the words of songs but one phrase that has stuck in my memory from the sixties is “You’re so vain I bet you think this song is about you.” I think that sums up the cult of ‘me’. If I focus completely on me then I’m missing out on everything else and because I don’t exist in isolation I’m missing out on part of myself.

I exist as part of something much greater. In John’s gospel we find Jesus explaining just that.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing.”

John 15: 5

So the real you is not just the person I see on the train in the morning, making your way to work, coming home and putting your feet up. You are really part of Christ’s being, part of His work in bringing His kingdom to reality on Earth. Our journey through life is part of that great work. Whether we live in a one bedroom flat or a fifty room mansion is irrelevant. Whether we owe money to the bank or own the bank makes no difference to the real importance of our lives.

Losing sight of that is one of the great tragedies of our times. Our society measures the worth of a person by their wealth, position or celebrity. The poor can be ignored but the rich must be listened to. The media seek out the opinions of celebrities more often that finding people of intellect when reporting events and the great questions of our time.

When we deny the presence of Christ in our lives we reduce human life to that of a commodity we can seek or dispose of as we please. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children reported that in Scotland 13,286 unborn children were aborted in 2018. The National Records of Scotland tell us that the most common cause of death in Scotland in 2017 was Ischaemic heart disease: 6,727deaths.

As we can see abortion is almost twice as lethal as heart disease yet those unborn children are not counted in the statistics. Is that because we might be victims of heart disease ourselves? Do I focus on what might affect me because my life is important and the unborn are not? As a society we certainly seem to have cut ourselves off from God. Cut off from God do we achieve nothing?

We live in an age of great technological advances and of great wealth. Has that helped us to solve the problems of our time? We certainly see advances in medicine, combating diseases that swept the earth in the past. Are we happier now? Some of us live longer, happier lives but we live in a world that seems to be facing growing problems that we might actually be causing.

We see mass movements of migrant trying to escape danger and find a better life. The world’s oceans are predicted to rise and flood coastal cities. The air we breathe is polluted by the vehicles we drive around in. (I confess to driving one of those vehicles.) Scientists warn us that we are changing the planet so that it will not sustain life.

We don’t seem to have achieved much. We don’t seem to have achieved happiness as measured by our society’s values. We are not rich enough, beautiful enough, popular enough or whatever. Only by Gods measure can we see the real value we have.

So when you are trying to find the real you please bear this in mind. It’s not all about ‘me’ it’s about ‘us’. You are important because you are a branch on that vine. You are so important that God sent His only Son to die for you. If God values you so highly why would you even consider the popular values of today?

No The Pope is Not a Heretic

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 10th May 2019

I’ve been reading a lot about criticism of Pope Francis. I find it worrying because the criticism is coming from within the Church. It’s coming from high levels within the hierarchy. I find it strange because ordinary people like me seem to be very happy with the Pope and take comfort in what he is reported to say.

What sort of things is the Pope saying that seems to cause concern and who are concerned? Some bishops and even cardinals have expressed concern that Pope Francis’ statements on people whose family arrangements are, shall we say unconventional, may run counter to the teaching of the Church. These would mainly be about those who have divorced and remarried. The Church does not recognise divorce since it is concerning a sacrament, matrimony. You can’t just undo a sacrament.

The Church does recognise that some marriages fail because they were not complete in the first place. Where the conditions for marriage were not met the marriage is invalid and can be annulled. The problem would not be obvious at the time of the marriage but subsequent events may show this to be the case. Unfortunately the annulment process is not well known or understood among most Catholics and the annulled marriage would normally be dissolved in a divorce to meet the legal requirements of civil marriage law.

The resulting confusion and the need to get out of a difficult situation can leave many people in a difficult situation. A subsequent remarriage is not recognised by the Church and their irregular situation leaves the new couple cut off from the sacraments. They can’t go back to a former situation and they can’t walk away from their new family. They find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Pope Francis has also caused concern by his comments about homosexual people. He has stated that being homosexual is not a sin. That is to correct a misconception held by many Catholics. His treatment of priests involved in sexual abuse has caused concern, giving the impression that he tolerates this behaviour. Now a letter has been issued by a number of theologians and senior churchmen suggesting that the Pope is guilty of heresy.

Now theologians are highly trained in Church doctrine. They are the people best placed to interpret scripture and pronounce on the teaching of the Church. There are a number of prominent theologians in the Church but they do not always agree with each other on the finer points of doctrine. I am not a theologian and am in no way qualified to make pronouncements on doctrine. How am I to respond to the criticisms of the Holy Father?

As a scientist, faced with a decision I would look at the evidence and refer to the opinions of experts. However, in matters of theology I can’t claim to understand enough to take that route. The only option open to me is to look to examples in scripture. Are there any instances in the gospels that would clarify this situation?

The best option is to look at what Jesus did. The theologians and senior churchmen are concerned with the laws of the Church as they should be. If we look at the Gospels we see that, quite often, Jesus was accused of breaking the rules. Observance of the Sabbath was very important for the Jews. Jesus fell foul of the Jewish authorities by curing the blind and lame on the Sabbath. This was a clear breach of the letter of the law.

Is there ever an excuse for breaking the law? One of the most serious commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but exceptions are made. You could kill someone in defence of your own life or in defence of your country. Would stealing food to prevent someone from starving to death be a sin? The Commandments and the laws of the Church are there to lead us to an ideal. They describe how life should be lived but the realities of life can put us in situations where we have to choose between two evils. The Church does not expect us to be able to solve an impossible puzzle but to do our best to choose what is least harmful.

Take the example of the pilot whose aircraft goes out of control. He refuses to eject and save his life by parachute so that he can steer the plane away from a school full of children. Should he be condemned for committing suicide or rewarded in Heaven for saving lives? We don’t always expect the rules to be obeyed. The laws of the Church are intended for our good and need not be obeyed if they cause us harm.

The Holy Father’s critics accuse him of being supportive of sinners and so undermining the teaching of the Church. Logically that can be seen to be the case. However, it seems to me that Pope Francis is showing compassion for sinners and people in difficult circumstances. He has good examples to justify this.

We are all aware of the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus is confronted by the scribes and Pharisees who brought a woman who was caught in adultery. They were putting Him to the test to see if he would uphold the law that stated that she should be stoned to death. Jesus’ reply was,

“If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

John 7: 7

When the accusers had melted away he turned to the woman,

“’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you’, said Jesus ‘go away and don’t sin any more’.”

John 7: 10, 11

I noticed two things about this encounter. Firstly, it is the woman who is to be stoned, there is no mention of the man. Secondly, Jesus does not condone the woman’s behaviour but does not condemn her. That is what we would expect of Jesus, his mission was to save sinners, not condemn them. He instituted the Church to continue this work. It is the Church’s role to save and not to condemn.

Pope Francis seems to be living out Jesus’ instruction to be compassionate.

“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned.”

Luke 6: 36,37

Being a sinner myself, I take great comfort in that quote knowing that I am depending on God’s mercy for my salvation. I don’t think Pope Francis is a heretic. I think he gives us a choice; are we to be sticklers for the law like the Pharisees and condemn others or are we to be like Jesus and show compassion to our fellow sinners?

Is The Pope a Heretic?

There are all sorts of accusations circulating in the Catholic Church. Some have claimed that Pope Francis is guilty of heresy. Can this be true?

Check out my column in this week’s Scottish Catholic Observer. Get your copy in your local parish or, if that’s not possible, you can get the full text here next week (17th May 2019).

The Value of Human Life

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 19th April 2019.

I was at funeral the other day

The occasion was a very sad one; this was a child’s funeral. Matthew was just under two years old when he died. Deaths always come as a shock but this one was long expected. Just after he was born the Doctors had warned his parents that Matthew would not live very long. All the delights of watching a child grow normally were to be denied to them.

The family gave Matthew all the care he needed and his needs were great and constant. They had to learn how to use the life sustaining equipment when they brought him home as the hospital could do no more for him. He was frequently rushed to hospital in the middle of the night to deal with serious problems.

At his funeral our parish priest told us that often people in this situation will ask “Why did God let that child die?” and confessed he did not have the answer. Who knows the mind of God? I thought of another question some have asked me, “Why did God allow that child to live? Surely a kind God would not allow the child to live with no hope?” Their question annoyed me at the time but I realised that day that their question was the right question, one whose answer I learned at the funeral.

That question reflects the values of our society today. It assumes that a child will have purpose when it becomes an adult. Only as an adult will it have a real value. Why did God make that child? Luckily there is an answer to that question. My old catechism tells me that God made me to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next. That applies to us all.

How do we get to know God? It seems to me that we get to know God through love. All love comes through God and it is the love we find in other people that shows us God’s love. Matthew experienced love from his family, their friends and from the many doctors and nurses who tended to him. The turnout at his funeral mass bears witness to that. Though he would not have been able to put that into words, Matthew came to know God as we all do, through the love shown by others.

Matthew was not able to speak but his smile was a great indication for his love. It was particularly obvious when he was held by his grandfather or heard his voice that this was someone he loved. He wouldn’t have been able to mention God but surely we show our love for God in our love for our fellow man.

What about serving God? Matthew wasn’t able to do anything for himself so how could he serve God? What, in fact, do we mean by serving God? It would be wrong to assume that God needs us to do anything for Him. God is all powerful and we are able to do things as a result of God’s gifts. I believe that God has a purpose for each of us. Some may have a notable purpose like Pope Francis whose purpose is to lead the Church. Most of us have purposes that are not so obvious. Take examples form the Stations of the Cross.

Simon of Cyrene was given the task of helping Jesus carry the cross so that He didn’t die on the way to Calvary. Veronica was given the task of wiping the face of Jesus. Neither of these tasks would be regarded as spectacular but we constantly remind ourselves of these simple tasks because God’s purpose for us is generally simple but important.

So what was Matthew’s purpose? Matthew couldn’t do anything. He could only be. Why would that be an important purpose? If I stand back and look at our society today one thing stands out. Our belief in the sanctity of life is under attack. Abortion has been legal in this country since the sixties. It was sold as a law to end the difficult cases of pregnancies that threatened the mother’s life. What it rapidly became is a law that destroys countless lives for the convenience of the parents. It doesn’t stop there. Some want to extend the time when abortions can be carried out. In New York recently they changed the law to allow abortions up to the point of birth.

Now we are being denied the right to have an opinion on the matter of abortion. Laws are being introduced to prevent those who value life from bothering people outside abortion clinics by praying. How dare we pray? How dare we value life?

At the other end of life we witness pressure to allow us to assist people to die. That started off as an argument about people who are terminally ill. No treatment can help them. Now we have seen people being helped to die because they are going deaf ( a musician ), are clinically depressed and even children being allowed to choose to die even though they are not terminally ill. It would seem you can be helped to die because you are fed up with life.

Life is God’s greatest gift. Followers of Christ believe that it is for God to decide when we will die. Killing is not an option. Medicine grew as a profession to save and prolong life. We have ambulances to save lives. We devise systems to allow us to cross the road in safety to save lives. The law requires us to wear a seatbelt in a car to save lives. I’m at a loss to see how all that squares with the notion that the unborn child’s life is not just as important.

Matthew’s life was testimony to the love of his parents and friends. His life was a reminder, a timely reminder that our society is on the wrong track. By his short life he has spoken out against our disregard for God’s gift of life. Anyone who was at his funeral was left in no doubt that Matthew’s life was not of no consequence but called out that we have got it wrong.

That was God’s purpose for Matthew and he served his God and will be happy with him in Heaven. He challenges us to do the same.