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.

My April Column – Mercy in Marriage?

This month I’m looking at mercy and considering Pope Francis’ exhortation Amoris Laetitia. I have my take on it . You may have a different view. The full document (264 pages) and a summary (considerably shorter) are available online. the link is  below.

Link Page

Any comments?


The full text of my column will be here next week.

At Pentecost the Spirit came in tongues of fire – Why don’t they do that today?

Pentecost and Conversions

Last month I considered Pentecost and the transformation it brought about in the Apostles. It seems to me that I need to examine more closely what Pentecost did for the Apostles and how that relates to our own lives. We read of the tongues of fire that appeared over the heads of the Apostles and the roaring noise like a mighty wind. These were sure signs to the Apostles that something wonderful was occurring and that a great power was involved.

I have no such recollection of my confirmation. Did the Apostles get a stronger Holy Spirit than the one I received? That might seem to be a likely conclusion when we consider the effect it had on the Apostles. They went out into the streets to address the very people they had been hiding from. Not only did they face the Jews but they accused them of unlawfully killing Jesus and went on to proclaim the resurrection.

The striking thing in this episode was not just the new-found courage of the Apostles, but the fact that they were ‘speaking in tongues’. In the ‘Acts of The Apostles’ it says that each of the listeners heard them in his own language. It doesn’t say that the Apostles spoke different languages. When the Apostles spoke each of the hearers understood what they were saying. It is the understanding that is important and I will come back to that.

I suppose I didn’t need a tongue of fire and a mighty wind at my confirmation because I was not a hunted man, afraid for his life and unaware of the powers he had been given. Those signs at Pentecost proved to the Apostles that a greater power was at work in them and gave them the courage to proceed. When I was confirmed I was not in any danger and I had the power of the Universal Church to convince me that God is at work in the world.

It is of some concern, then, that many baptised and confirmed Catholics don’t seem to realise the power they have. They received the Holy Spirit and his gifts and seem thoroughly bored by the whole thing. The power to communicate to people of different languages is nothing to write home about in the age of the internet and Google Translate. You can write anything on your computer and have it instantly translated into almost any language for your audience. Who needs ‘speaking in tongues’?

Well, this is where I’d like to make a distinction between hearing and understanding. I had occasion to make use of Google Translate when I was in my Camino adventure a couple of years ago. I had chest pains and was consulting a doctor in A&E. The doctor spoke Spanish and I spoke English. She used the computer to translate. She typed the questions in Spanish and I was given five versions of what she said in English. I chose what I thought she asked and replied in English. The computer gave her five versions of what I might have said. I think you can see where I’m going. Before long I understood that I was not going to die but had no idea what was wrong with me.

How often have you gone to Mass and heard the readings recited as though they were a list of words to be pronounced with no regard for their meaning? Unless we are to understand what is being communicated we might as well not listen. This is at the heart of our current problem. In our Gospel we have the greatest story ever told. They even made a movie of that. In two thousand years we have managed to make that story boring.

This is the story that brought about the conversions the Apostles made of the very people who crucified Jesus. The implications of this story are such that we must re-evaluate what it means to be a human being and realise that each and every one of us is special. On that first day the Apostles converted about three thousand people. Why are we not having a similar effect on those who have drifted away from the Church?

It is easy for us to place the blame squarely on those who drift. We can console ourselves by claiming they have no sticking power. But, surely that is not the truth. If we were proclaiming the message properly, providing understanding, not just words, then I think the drift would be in the other direction. Now, don’t be alarmed. I’m not suggesting we all buy loudhailers and get out into the streets and start drowning out everything with the sound of the Gospel. It’s not the sound of the gospel we need to spread; it’s the message we have to broadcast.

I think it was as much the example of the Apostles getting out there and proclaiming the truth to a hostile crowd that won people over. By their behaviour they made people think that there must be something in this message worth listening to; just look how these men have been changed. I wonder if anyone looks at me and thinks that something powerful has changed me? If they don’t then I’m obviously not displaying the sort of behaviour in my life that would draw people to Christianity. After all, that is what Christians are for. I remember being taught in school that my task in this life is to save my soul. That is nonsense. Jesus did the saving. My job is to bring others to Jesus.

The wrong message is getting out there and it can’t all be blamed on an ill-informed press. Countless people have told me they don’t like the Church because it condemns gay people or divorced people or terrorists. To be clear, the role of the Church, that’s you and me, is not to condemn anyone; we are about bringing everyone to Christ. That was what the Apostles were doing. They were not condemning the Jews who crucified Christ; they were out in the streets bringing them back to Christ, baptising them and washing away their sins.

There are lots of ‘Christians’ out there condemning people and warning of a vengeful God. That’s not the God I know. The God I know is a loving God. He is the loving Father who watches patiently for the return of the prodigal son. Is that the God we are putting out there? Do we behave like Christ, quick to forgive and always ready to make peace or are we ready to fight? I look at my hands as I type this (I should really learn to touch type) and I’m thinking how a stranger sees my hands. Are they open, ready to shake hands or are they clenched, ready to make a fist?

We usually make a fist if we are afraid. We should take a leaf out of the Apostles’ book and throw off the fear and meet people with confidence. If we put our trust in the Holy Spirit we will always find the right thing to say to put people at their ease and show them the true face of the Church, the face of the Merciful Christ.

Joseph McGrath

The Way of the Cross -8 My August Column

The weeping women

Weep not for me

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

In this series of articles I’m looking at the way of the Cross and I’m trying to find the meaning behind it; the message for us. This is a curious incident on that final journey. Who were these women/ Why were they weeping and why does Jesus speak to them in the way he does? It’s very strange and it needs looking into.

I looked into the gospel accounts to see what I could find there. The only mention of this comes in Luke’s gospel.

Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ’Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, “Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”; to the hills, “Cover us!” For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?’

Luke 23: 27, 31

The other three evangelists do not mention this incident. Why has Luke picked this out? He must have recognised an important message in this passage. The women in the passage are not the women who followed Jesus from Galilee. They are women of Jerusalem. If they are not followers why are they weeping and why does Jesus seem to discount their sorrow?

The question is one of ritual. Death has many rituals in different societies. In Jewish tradition women would be hired to come and weep and wail at funerals to set the sad, sombre tone of the occasion. This harks back to the story of Rachel whose tears prompted God’s forgiveness. Rituals like this are not uncommon in many societies. In Africa there are many tribes where wailing women are a matter of course.

I recall a story from my friend Father Pat McGuire who was on his first mission station in Ghana when he had to officiate at a funeral. The dead man’s widow jumped into the grave to be with her husband and could not be persuaded to come out. At a loss, Father Pat turned to a local priest for advice. He was told to start filling in the grave. When the first spade of earth was put in the woman jumped out. She was following a local ritual.

This may seem strange to us but we do similar things. Do you remember the film Oliver? Oliver was sold to an undertaker and dressed in black with a top hat, a mummer to precede the hearse and set a sad tone. We are still bound by funeral rituals today. We wear black. We have solemn faces, bells toll a solemn message of sadness. Yet, as Christians, we believe that death is the start of our new life in heaven; surely a happy occasion?

Rituals around death are changing in our society as we reject religion and need something in its place. I remember watching the funeral of Princess Diana and being amazed when people began throwing roses on to the hearse. Laying bunches of flowers, teddy bears or football tops on railings or at the roadside has become a ritual to mark the death of a loved one or even someone we barely knew. People are searching for something to replace a religious ritual. Perhaps the religious ritual really held no great meaning for them in the first place.

I am writing this while we are celebrating (?) the start of the First World War, the Great War as the media are calling it again. We have solemn ceremonies of rembrance of those who dies one hundred years ago. There seems to be little remembrance of those politicians who failed to avert a war in the first place. History shows little evidence of lessons learnt from the slaughter as we have managed to keep fighting wars where there need be none.

Is this false ritual what Jesus was referring to when he told the women not to weep for him? The ritual can hide the truth. Jesus’ words refer the women to another part of the Torah, our old testament, where in Jeremiah it says,

You there! Call the mourning women! Let them come! Send for those who are best at it! let them come! Let them lose no time in raising the lament for us! Let our eyes rain tears, our eyelids run with weeping! Yes, the wail is to be heard from Zion, what ruin is ours, what utter shame!

Jeremiah 9:16,19


This is in the face of the punishment that God is to wreak on the Israelites for forsaking the law.The passage about calling on the mountains to fall on us is a reference to another scriptural passage. This one is from Hosea 10:8 warning the Israelites of the punishment God will mete out for their unfaithfulness. Perhaps Jesus is warning the Jews of what is to befall them after rejecting him as the Messiah.

Jesus is the green wood in the quote. He brought the completion of the covenant between God and man a new covenant. The Jews rejected him and stuck with the dry wood, the incomplete covenant. This would not be immediately obvious to the people. After the crucifixion the Jewish religion continued and does to this day. Christianity started small and grew slowly.

The message in Luke’s gospel is really one for us. He is warning us about adopting rituals which, though not bad in themselves, can hide the real message. What do I mean by that? Let’s look at ritual in our Christian lives. Going to mass on a Sunday is a good place to start.

When I was a boy (not really that long ago, surely) we were taught that the obligation was to assist at the sacrifice of the mass. That is a wee bit more than just being there. At the consecration we are witnessing something extraordinary. The bread and wine becomes the second person of the Trinity. Lights don’t flash. There is no booming voice from heaven. Never the less we come into the presence of Jesus, our saviour. This is impossible for us to understand fully. It requires our belief. How do we react to this?

Reactions vary. Some people talk through this part of the mass. Some read the parish bulletin. Some kneel and appear devout but might be thinking about something else. Some are praying in the presence of the Lord. I’m not making any judgements here. I’m just admitting that the ritual sometimes does not highlight the importance of the moment but can fool us (me included) into thinking we have got it right. If we are not offering ourselves with the bread and wine, if we are not joining in the sacrifice at the consecration then we are missing the point.

The rituals are good. They are the signposts that can keep us on the right track, alert us to something important. When we forget to recognise what the ritual is alerting us to then we have lost the plot. We are like the weeping women. The Pharisees were hot on ritual and you know what Jesus thought of them.

This is not about ‘going to communion’ and then carrying on with things as normal. This is our opportunity to accept Jesus into our lives and give that life to him in our sacrifice. We should be going out of church on a mission. We should be out to change the world, starting small, growing slowly. Changing ourselves and becoming an influence on others by our example.

In this station I have learned something Luke wanted to tell us about ritual. We must be able to recognise Jesus there and be alert to his presence in our lives.


Joseph McGrath

My August Column – Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

The weeping women

Weep not for me

My August column is published today in the Scottish Catholic Observer.

The eighth station – Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. Who were these women and what were they really weeping about? Why do they get a mention today after almost two thousand years?

Is there a message here for any of us? Get the paper this weekend and see for yourself.

Don’t worry if you miss it. The full text will be available here next Friday (5th September). There is a lot more in the paper though.


Carfin Grotto

I’m just back from Carfin Grotto. I’m over there regularly and I wondered if people knew just how beautiful it is. That’s why I’ve published this post.

Canon Taylor

The History of the Grotto

Canon Taylor was the parish Priest of St Francis Xavier parish in Carfin, near Motherwell, Scotland. He led a visit of some parishioners to Lourdes early in 1920 and was inspired to build a replica of that shrine in Lanarkshire to give access to the many who could not go to Lourdes. With the help of many workers, out of work in the depression, he built a magnificent grotto which has become the National Shrine of Scotland.

Saint Bernadette at the grotto.

Saint Bernadette at the grotto.

The little grotto with statues of Saint Bernadette and Our Lady was the original part of tthe shrine which opened in late 1922. It has expanded greatly since then. There is the Saint Theresa Chapel which overlooks the site and has been a focus for pilgrimage masses and rallies for decades.

St. Theresa Chapel

Another glass chapel was added in more recent times. The Glasgow Garden Festival was held on the banks of the Clyde in 1988 as a spur to regeneration of the old industrial areas of Glasgow. The site had a small glass chapel where visitors could go for a few moments of quiet reflection. After the Festival the site was being dismantled. The glass chapel had influenced many visitors and there was a demand for the chapel to be retained somewhere. In the end it was moved to Carfin and it now stands in the grounds of the grotto.

The chapel

The chapel

There is exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in this chapel every weekday.

The Blessed Sacrament in the glass chapel

The Blessed Sacrament in the glass chapel

The one o’clock mass is always well attended by people from Lanarkshire and beyond. The chapel has become a favourite with many who feel a special quality in the tiny chapel.

Memorial to Irish immigrants.

Memorial to Irish immigrants.


One area of the grotto has a memorial to the victims of the Irish Famines of the 1840s and the immigrants who came to Scotland to find work.

The memorial was opened by the then Taoiseach  Bertie Ahern on behalf of the government and people of Ireland.

The Irish immigrants and their descendants have formed a large part of the Catholic population of Scotland.

Other immigrants from Europe who came to Scotland to work in the iron and steel industry as well as the Lanarkshire coal mines have made their mark on the catholic population. They have also made their mark in the grotto.










The shrine is a popular stopping place for visitors and has a new visitor centre and cafe where you can rest and enjoy a lunch or just a cup of tea.



Pope John Paul II


The memorial to John Paul II marks the great love Scotland’s Catholics had for him.

John Paul Plaque

John Paul Plaque











A hidden gem in the grotto is the Chapel of the Angels. This is a tiny, underground chapel, unknown to many of the visitors. When you go there (and you must) you should find this little chapel and spend a few minutes there. A prayer would go down well too.

Underground Chapel

The Angel Chapel

The Seventh Station – Jesus Falls the Second Time


Jesus Falls the Second Time

Jesus Falls the Second Time




This month I’m looking into the seventh station on the Way of the Cross. Jesus falls for the second time. The second fall should not be unexpected. Jesus was getting weaker with loss of blood. Yet a second fall brings with it the warning that this will continue. I wrote earlier about tripping on a kerbstone in Paris and the shock of the fall. The problem is when tripping becomes normal.


Last year I found myself suffering with sciatica. I thought it would go away by itself but it got worse. What can you do? I went to the doctor and he sent me for physiotherapy. I thought that was helping but found I was stumbling when I walk. It now appears I have a worn hip so I just keep taking the tablets. When I walk I sometimes find my foot doesn’t go where I meant it to go. Tripping and the consequent fall has become a feature of life now.


Jesus’ second fall is a metaphor for sin. Just like my occasional fall, falling into sin becomes a feature of life. We can think of a fall from grace or a fall into sin. Falling into sin makes sin sound like a trap and so it is. I don’t know about you but I can excuse myself by thinking that a sin is not serious or is not harming anyone. That’s the trap. Just like my problem with tripping falling into sin is a normal part of life. We need to be aware and ready for the unexpected.


Now, in sin, I’ve changed my perspective. I’m seeing things slightly differently. When my perspective is distorted my decisions get distorted too. I’ll give you an example. I’m six foot two and I can reach for things on high shelves but often get into bother because if you measure me I’m only five foot eight. I have a similar problem with cameras that don’t capture my full head of hair. I think you get the picture.


If my view of reality is distorted then my relationship with others will be too. My sin distorts my view of the world unless I realise that I am wrong and do something about it. To return to the analogy of the fall, you can’t get up unless you know you are down.


This was brought home to me recently when I read on Twitter about a woman in America who threw her children out of the window. That was disturbing, shocking. What was more disturbing were the comments added by other readers. They posted all sorts of suggestions about the sorts of torture that the woman should suffer.


The comments were based on the view that this woman is evil. Nobody suggested that she might be suffering from some psychological disorder and be in urgent need of help. Was this based upon the perception that we are good and guiltless and the woman must be evil? If so then we are in the trap of sin. None of us are without sin. Once we realise that we can look with compassion on others.


Another example I found in the news was the funeral of Fr. Kenneth Walker who was murdered trying to defend his fellow priest in Phoenix, Arizona. A group of protesters from Westboro Baptist church demonstrated with placards at the church. They are an unaffiliated church and have been demonstrating at the funerals of service personnel who died in Afghanistan. They claim that these things are God’s punishment.


I suppose that’s an old idea of God. It’s a picture of a vengeful God who is watching out for us to fall into sin and take revenge on us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus came to save us, not condemn us. The sufferings and falls we contemplate in the Way of The Cross are how Jesus took the punishment for our sins. God is always ready to forgive. We just need to turn back to Him.


How often have you heard people talk about Catholic guilt? The story goes that we are brought up in an atmosphere of sin and guilt. This causes all sorts of psychological problems that are only solved when you give up religion. Of course it’s all nonsense. Being aware of sin and the effects of sin on our lives gives us the opportunity to change and improve life. As Catholics we have the sacraments to help us be reconciled with Jesus and rid ourselves of any burden we feel.


If we are forgiven, free of sin, then we are in a position to treat others in the same way. We should be able to “forgive those who trespass against us”. How much evil in the world is committed because of perceived wrongs others have done to us? There are wars in Africa and the Middle East caused by real and imagined wrongs. How much better the world could be if we were more ready to forgive.


We can look to South Africa for a great example of this. The black people in that country had faced oppression under the Apartheid regime for decades. Families had suffered great injustice and brutality. When the regime fell there could have been terrible bloodletting as people took revenge. Instead there was a system of Truth and Reconciliation. People could own up to what they had done and were forgiven. The bloodbath was avoided.


So how do we get out of the trap? It’s not easy. You know the story about the man who took a shortcut on his way home from the pub. He cut through the cemetery and fell into a grave dug for a funeral next morning. Try as he might he could not get out so he sat down to wait for morning. Soon another reveller fell into the same grave and tried to climb out. The first man tapped him on the shoulder and said “You’ll never get out.”. But he did with one jump.


Who can give us the tap on the shoulder? Who can help us out of the trap? Obviously Jesus is the one to turn to. In Jesus we can find the compassion we need to help us. We can find him in the sacrament of reconciliation. Some of us find that very difficult. We can’t shrug off the feeling of guilt and can’t bring ourselves to take that step into the confessional. In this second fall we see Jesus, in his agony, get up and take an even more difficult step. He encourages us to do the same.


I had a friend who had been away from the Church for years. After attending the funerals of two lifelong friends in succession he decided it was time to set things to rights. He told me he went to confession, ready for a hard time from the priest. He was surprised to find that rather than a hard time he was welcomed back and his sins forgiven. There was a visible change in him. He was a happier man in his dealings with everyone.


When we see Jesus get up from his second fall in the seventh station we should be reminded that no fall is too great for his compassion. No matter how far we fall or think we have fallen Jesus is there to help us up again. So let’s forget about guilt and concentrate on forgiveness. Jesus is ready to forgive us and we must be ready to forgive one another.


Joseph McGrath

When Falling Becomes a Habit

My monthly column should be bublished early this month. I’m told it will be in this weeks issue of The Scottish Catholic Observer. It deals with the seventh Station on The Way of The Cross, Jesus falls the second time. Is this about falling over? What could it really be about? Does it have any meaning for you and me?

Get your copy of the paper this weekend. If you are off to Turkey or some other exotic place you can get the full text here next week.