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.


My February Column Published Today

Jesus carries his cross to Calvary

Jesus Carries His Cross

My latest column is published today in the Scottish Catholic Observer. The Way of The Cross. This month I look at the Second Station – Jesus caries his cross. What more is there to say about that? Get your copy this weekend in your local parish and find out.

Full text here next week for those who miss the rush and can’t get a copy.

The Way of the Cross 1

Strangers to Christianity often wonder at the symbolism we use. The cross is a reminder of Christ’s violent and ignominious death, a failure in human terms. Similarly, the way of the cross must seem strange to them. We follow the last steps of Jesus as He carries His cross to the place of execution. Why would we wish to remember that?

Of course, as Christians, we understand the significance of this event and we are charged to take up our cross and follow. The Stations of the Cross which we are familiar with originated in the Via Dolorosa followed by pilgrims to Jerusalem. They retraced the path Jesus followed to His crucifixion.

Today we are following a tradition which is reputed to have started with Saint Francis of Assisi who made this a devotion in churches. We don’t need to go to Jerusalem to retrace Our Lord’s last steps we can do it in our own parish. It is so much an accepted part of Catholic life that I have never given much thought to its origins or deeper meanings.

This time last year I was making my preparations for my attempt at the Camino, a testing pilgrimage. When I set off eventually I passed through Lourdes and had a passing thought about starting from there. The train moved off and the thought went. At the end of last year I returned to Lourdes for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a less strenuous pilgrimage.

On that feast day we had Mass in the grotto followed by The Stations in the underground basilica. We were led by Father John Ahern and his commentary had a lasting effect on me. The basilica was dark and cold on that December morning. Perhaps the strange surroundings led me to think again about the Stations as a pilgrimage.

That’s where I’m going this year. I’m going to take each station in turn and see what I find. I hope you can come along.

The First Station – Jesus is condemned to death

I start by looking at what we are told in the Gospels. All four evangelists agree that Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. They go to some length to show that Pilate was reluctant to do this. He said he could find no case against Jesus that merited death. The crowd applied pressure. They howled him down. They applied political threats. They claimed that Jesus’ claim to be a king was a threat to Caesar, Pilate’s boss.

Pilate reluctantly gave in and condemned Jesus to death. In Matthew’s gospel we learn that he washes his hands of Jesus’ blood. Matthew goes further to tell us that the people say “Let his blood be on us and our children.”

So who is guilty of Jesus’ death? The debate resurfaces from time to time. In recent years the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of The Christ” caused furore and accusations of anti-Semitism. Were the Jews to blame or was it the Romans? It is an interesting debate, but I think it misses the point. I was always taught that Jesus died for our sins. He died to redeem us. If there is any blame going then some of it must, surely come my way.

The focus of this station is not on who is to blame. We are asked to look at this situation and imagine what we would have done if we had been there. If I was one of the crowd would I have cried out “Crucify him!” just like the others? It might have proved to be a dangerous thing to do.

If I had been in Pontius Pilate’s place how would I have reacted? Pilate was a powerful man. He had a Roman army at his disposal. He could have sorted out the crowd easily. Pilate was governor to calm down Jerusalem. He didn’t want to stir up crowds. He knew Jesus was innocent and a victim of jealousy. Would I have acted differently? Would I stand up for truth in the face of displeasing my ruler and probably losing my job?

Well, that was then and this is today. It would be easy to say I would have been a man of principle and would have stood for justice. What would I do in a similar situation today? There are innocent people suffering and dying in unjust situations. In Africa there are poor farmers who will remain poor no matter how hard they work because the price of the tea or coffee they grow is decided by the dealers in the rich countries. I buy that tea and coffee. When am I standing up against injustice?

Asylum seekers in our country face inhuman treatment sometimes. I read today of an eighty four year old man in a detention centre for asylum seekers who died in handcuffs. Doctors had declared him to be unfit for detention or deportation but he died, having been in handcuffs for almost five hours. When did I stand up and speak out against inhuman treatment of people in my country?

Some might cite the abortion scandal in our country as another example of killing the innocent while we ignore it. In the light of these things I’m not sure that I could claim to act any differently than Pilate or the crowd who condemned Jesus. Perhaps that’s the point of the first station. It invites us to look, not at Pilate and the crowd, but at ourselves.

The Way of the Cross is a pilgrimage of sorts and it should enable me to see things in a different light. It should enable me to see myself more clearly, let me see who I really am. I think I must take stock and decide whether I want to be one of the crowd or stand up for justice.

Fortunately there are ways of taking action now that may not have been available in the past. If I want to take action against injustice I can join one of the many groups or organisations that combat injustice. I can become a campaigner with Justice and Peace or help organisations that work to help the poor like Mission Matters or Aid to the Church in need. I could volunteer to work for the poor with the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul.

There are lots of ways I could stand up for justice. One of the most effective ways is, of course, through prayer. Prayer must not be seen as an easy way out. Real prayer is not a quick Hail Mary for the poor. Real prayer for justice must be regular and unceasing. There are lots of prayer options for me. Perhaps I could look back to where I started, in Lourdes. The wee shops opposite the grotto are loaded down with rosaries, and for good reason. Regularly praying the rosary (not the mad dash through the decades) could provide me with an effective and powerful means to stand out from the crowd.

Just as importantly, I must become more observant. I should be able to spot injustice, be it at work, at home or in the public arena. I must become prepared to do something about it.

Joseph McGrath

Happy Christmas

Nativity Scene

Come O Devine Messia

Christmas is almost upon us. This has been a year of wars and violence. Let’s take the opportunity we have in this season of peace and love to reconsider how we behave to one another.

The Government might reconsider their bedroom tax, although they might point out that Jesus didn’t have one – He was born in a stable. Let’s hope they don’t take that as a model for the future.

I wish you all a happy and holy Christmas and may the Peace remain with you in the New Year.


My October Column – Full Text – The Power of Faith

This article appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 25th October 2013.

So far in this series I have looked at Faith in various ways – how I learned my Faith, how I grew in Faith and how my Faith might put me at odds with the world. I have looked at life as a journey of Faith, taking me from childhood into a more mature understanding of my relationship with God.

In this month’s article I want to take a look at Faith from a slightly different perspective. I have looked at the strength of faith and strengthening my faith. The other day I found that Jesus used a different idea. He spoke of the size of our Faith.

In the parable of the mustard seed He says that if your faith was the size of a mustard seed you could command a tree to uproot itself and walk. Now we can take that statement on many levels. Obviously I am not able to command a tree to do that so my faith must be really small. It can be taken as a simple comparison.

On the other hand it is saying something about Faith. Jesus is saying that Faith gives us power. In another place he tells us that faith can move mountains. He is telling us that we have the power to do things that we think are beyond our capabilities.

Now I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the Gospel, just to check. In Luke 8; 43 – 48 we hear of a woman who is suffering from a condition that has been dragging her down for twelve years. She believes that Jesus has the power to heal her. One day she pushes through the crowd and touches the hem of his garment, She feels the power that cures her that instant. Jesus feels it too. “Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

Everyone denied it but Jesus said,

 “Somebody touched me. I felt that power had gone out from me.”

The woman came forward and confessed to touching Him and said she had been cured. Jesus said,

 “My daughter, your faith has restored you to health; go in peace.”

He didn’t say that He had cured her because of her faith. In fact the woman felt the miracle happen before Jesus was aware of her.

Jesus frequently refers to the power of Faith. On visiting Nazareth, his home town, the people would not accept Him. He was still the carpenter’s son. In Mark 6; 4-6  we learn,

“And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is only despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’; and He could work no miracles there, though He cured a few sick people by laying hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of Faith.”

The gospels make it clear that when we have Faith we have power to do good. We have power beyond our imagining. We have power to carry out the work that Jesus has set us to do. We know that, but do we really believe it?

My faith is certainly much smaller than that mustard seed and I’m sure many of us don’t feel we have the power to do marvellous things. However if we all have a small faith we can join together and in coming together our Faith can become much bigger. It is as though all our little mustard seeds come together to make something much bigger. I believe that is why it is important that we come together in prayer. We worship together because the Faith is stronger then.

Who has been to a procession in Lourdes, with thousands of believers singing and praying together and has not felt the effects. For that time our faith is magnified and we can feel it. I belong to a small choir and we work hard at our hymns. Recently we attended a couple of workshops in Motherwell Diocese. There were participants from across the area. When we all sang together we were lifted by the other voices. The sound was wonderful and it was not just more noise, we all felt inspired and sang better than our usual attempts.

As a community of Faith we are a power for good. There are, however, things we can’t do. In Mark’s gospel we hear of Jesus casting out a demon from a boy. The boy’s father asks Jesus to help him. Jesus casts out the spirit and the boy is cured. His disciples asked why they had been unable to cure the boy. Jesus answered,

“This is the kind that can only be driven out by prayer.”

Mark 9; 29

There we have our answer. It is through prayer that great things are done. When we are united in prayer we are most effective. Sometimes people tell us that they don’t need to go to Mass because they can pray at home or on the bus. While it is certainly true that we can pray anywhere and at any time, it is when we come together as a community of prayer that we are truly united. When we are united in the Eucharist then our prayers are truly powerful.

I recall being at a meeting of priests on a mission in Liberia. This was after the troubles there. Someone asked the priest who had run the Catholic radio station, Radio Veritas, to explain his escape from a fire there. The station had been broadcasting news of the atrocities Charles Taylor’s army had been carrying out. One night he was seized and locked in the inner studio of the station and the building set on fire. He was soon overcome by fumes, flames surrounding his studio.

He woke up on someone’s kitchen floor. Nobody knew how he had arrived there. His explanation was simple – he didn’t know how he got out, only that he had been saved by people’s prayers.

It is evident, then that Faith is not an individual thing. It works best in community, the bigger the community the better. Faith demands to be shared. There is a temptation for us to be smug in our religion. We could easily feel that we are chosen by God and other people may not get to Heaven but we will be ok. I don’t think it really works like that. Jesus calls all men (and women – I’m not looking to start a fight). As Christians we are called to help others to come to Christ. If we sit back thinking “I’m all right Jack.” Then we might be in for a rude awakening when the time comes.

I believe that it is vital that all Christians come together and show, by example, how Christ’s message of love can transform us. Only by being united in Christ can we persuade non – Christians to turn to the gospel. In sharing our Faith we will make it bigger and more effective in dealing with the problems of our world.

This Year of Faith has given me a timely reminder that the Faith I have taken for granted is not something to leave in the drawer and bring out on a Sunday. It has to be the guiding force in my life. I wonder where it will lead me?