Lent’s Over – My Column – Full Text

This was published in The Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 28th April 2017

Lent is over and we are now in Easter. I’ve had my glass of red wine and chocolate is now allowed in the house again. Getting to the end of Lent was a great feeling but was it all worth it? I thought I should review my Lenten efforts, just to see if I have achieved what I’d hoped for. Now I’m asking myself what I’ve done for Lent. Was it enough? Have I changed myself enough to make me think that it was worth it? I’m not sure about that and it forces me to have a look at who I am.

That makes me think of the television programme “Who do you think you are?” The television programme looks back at who your grandparents, great grandparents etc. were and what they achieved. I’m just going to look at myself.

I started school in the early fifties when we were still in rationing. The map of the world on the classroom wall was coloured with large swathes of red, the British Empire. We controlled a large part of the world and I was part of the ‘we’.  I was British.

I was a Catholic, part of the one true Church. I was definitely on God’s side and would eventually be welcomed into Heaven. That couldn’t be said for a large part of the world’s population. I was also Scottish, a member of the nationality that gave the world steam power, telephones and television (though I didn’t have one) as well as lots of other inventions. To crown it all I was of Irish descent. The blood in my veins was that of saints and scholars, bards and warlords. This was a powerful identity, not bad for a wee boy in short trousers.

Of course, in reality I was not really able to claim credit for any of this; much of which was entirely illusional. All of those red patches on the map have managed to break free and look after themselves. Much of the Scottish and Irish images have been tarnished when we look closer at them.

If I’m going to measure the success or otherwise of my Lenten efforts I need to look at myself now and see how I measure up. What standard can I use to measure myself against? Well, the only possible one is Jesus. My Lenten efforts were really about trying to become more like Him. The end of Lent is Easter and the Resurrection. Am I risen at Easter with a new life?

Now my problem is – just how can I compare myself to Christ? Jesus is the Son of God and has divine powers. I’m merely human, how can I measure up to Jesus? I suppose I can only aspire to copy His ways and see how well I compare to the way He lived on Earth.

One striking thing about Jesus was the way he saw things. He didn’t see people as others saw them. People saw criminals and sinners as people to be avoided or even punished. They thought of lepers and cripples, the blind and the deaf as sinners being punished. Jesus didn’t see it that way. He knew that the afflicted people were not sinners being punished but used their visible ailments to give a message about sinners. He showed that he could cure physical ailments as proof that he could, and would forgive sins.

Jesus saw the laws differently from the Jewish authorities. He was accused of breaking the law by curing people on the Sabbath. Who was he to defy the laws? Jesus’ message was that the laws are there to help us, not to get in our way.

How do I measure up against Jesus? How do I see criminals and sinners? I admit that I think criminals should be punished in order to protect the innocent. Surely that’s not the end of the story. Every criminal is someone who needs to be helped to change their ways. Prisons can only do so much to rehabilitate criminals. As the prison chaplain at HMP Shotts told me, many long term prisoners are released into a world that has changed drastically since they were locked up. They come out to a home that may no longer exist and find nobody they recognise. How much has your town changed in the last twenty years? How welcoming are we to those who have ‘paid their debt to society?’

I must stop seeing criminals and sinners and start to see people who may need sympathy and help. I need to see laws and rules as guides to help me live a good life, not barriers that can cut people off from me.

I need to begin to think like Christ. Jesus was sent here on a mission and that was what he thought about. He wasn’t thinking about building up a good carpentry business and becoming wealthy. He was thinking about our salvation; saving us from sin and eventual separation from God.

We have been sent here on a mission too. We need to think about that mission above all. Now I’m not saying that we should forget about the questions of the day, forget about voting, give up our jobs and wander into the wilderness like John the Baptist. We need to deal with the problems of our world, work, vote and raise our families. However, we must be able to look beyond all that. We need to raise our sights to our future. We will not be here forever. This is not our home. There is no point in building up bank accounts with millions we can never spend. We are her to bring souls to Jesus. Let’s get on with it.

That means we need to act like Jesus. I don’t think I’ll be working miracles, curing the sick, turning water into wine (red wine, preferably) and raising people from the dead. I do need to be open to all people. I need to recognise that I’m no better than the sinners of this world; I’m really a sinner too. I must not pretend that because their sin is obvious and well known my secret sins are ok.

I need to act like Jesus and treat good and bad alike. Above all I need to be open and honest about myself and others. The school where I taught had a motto which translated as “Speak out for justice.” Do I speak out for justice for the poor, the sick and the disabled? If I did would anybody listen?

When do I get the opportunity to have my voice heard? Well there is about to be just such an opportunity. A General Election has been called and I will have a voice through my ballot paper. This is my opportunity to see, think and act like Jesus. I need to look at what’s being offered, looking, like Jesus, beyond the rhetoric to find the truth about what the politicians actually do.

I need to think about how my vote can help bring about justice for the poor and those in need. I must examine the consequences of my vote. What will the result be and who will benefit?

I then need to act like Jesus and use my vote for the greater good, not for my own benefit alone. There is no easy answer to all of this but if we follow Jesus’ example we will not be looking for a selfish outcome but keep the needs of other in our minds.

To paraphrase Saint Pio, Pray, Hope and Vote.

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My March Column – Full Text

It’s Lent again. Is it just me or was it only a couple of months since the last Lent? I must admit I don’t look forward to Lent. Lent is a time of giving up things and the theme is penance. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to face up to the fact that we are dust and are going to return to dust. Now that’s not a happy thought.

The first problem I face is deciding what to give up. I give up red wine, all alcohol actually but I only have a glass of wine (it’s supposed to be good for the heart.) My wife gives up sweets and cakes, so those are out as well since they are not brought into the house. The whole giving up business can create its own problems. I read that Theresa May, our Prime Minister has given up crisps. She got a really bad press for that; all too easy the critics say. Michael Gove went further in an article in The Times. He pointed out that this was a Catholic tradition and it showed that Mrs. May was the first Catholic Prime Minister of the U.K.

He wasn’t saying this was good. He was arguing that Brexit was essentially a Protestant thing and Mrs. May should not be trusted to go through with it. Mrs. May is actually an Anglican but obviously some think she seems a bit dodgy. So it seems that giving up something up for Lent leaves us open to anti-Catholic rhetoric, even if we are not a Catholic.

Now there’s a problem right away. There’s a great temptation to compete with one another on who does the most difficult giving up. I wonder if Theresa May’s critics have given up anything? I must admit I admire her for going public about Lent. I suppose she was asked and had to think of something quickly but it’s unusual for any politician to admit to any Christian action these days. Politicians have been ridiculed for expressing their belief in God.

Carol Monaghan, M.P. for Glasgow North West turned up to her select committee meeting on Ash Wednesday with her ashes on her forehead. Other members could not believe she wanted to appear with this symbol as the meeting was being broadcast on television. Perhaps they found the idea of publicly marking oneself as a sinner, for that’s what we are doing, was a step too far.

What if I had a class of wine tonight, have I failed Lent? Pope Francis would tell me that I have the wrong idea of Lent. Lent is a time of penance; but penance with a purpose. On Ash Wednesday the Pope was comparing the atmosphere of selfishness and downright lies in our society with the atmospheric pollution in our cities. The E.U. has threatened to fine us for exceeding air pollution levels, levels which cause premature deaths. We tend not to notice the pollution as we are breathing it every day. Similarly we do not notice the poisonous atmosphere of sin we inhabit because it’s always there.

Pope Francis tells us that Lent is a time when we can cut out this spiritual pollution and learn to breathe again. My giving up red wine is an exercise for my spiritual health, not a test. If I can give up my indulgence and put the money I would spend on that to some good cause then I’m fulfilling the requirements of penance and almsgiving all in one go; a two for one offer as Tesco might put it. There are plenty of opportunities to use the money wisely; SCIAF’s Wee Blue Box is sitting on our table.

I will try to adopt a more positive approach to this Lent. If I take a long hard look at myself and list all my failings I’m sure I will end up with a massive to do list. I don’t think I’ll be able to sort out all of those faults in six weeks. I think I’ll need to do a wee bit at a time. Where should I start?

The Gospel reading this morning was very short and to the point.

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you; a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’

Luke 6:36 – 38

There you have it do not judge and do not condemn. Well, that lets me out then. Oh yes? Can I be sure that I’m not guilty of judging and, indeed, condemning others? Perhaps I am guilty of judging others when I get annoyed by something they do or say. Do I condemn others? Do I write them off as not worth bothering about?  Maybe I need to take that close look at my behaviour.

While picking out all my faults I should keep in mind where I’m going with all this. I am going, we are all going towards Easter. Easter is the great celebration of the Church. We are celebrating our salvation. We are celebrating that turning point in history when Jesus, by his suffering and dying on the cross, made it possible for us to attain Heaven.

Now if I am going to be judged in the way I judge other people then I’d better start creating a sympathetic judgement for myself. I have to start to be more understanding of all those people who annoy me. There’s a Lenten task that puts abstaining from red wine into the shade.  Perhaps I need to try to put myself in their shoes as they say. If I could see things from their perspective then perhaps I would not be so grumpy.

Well, that’s made up my mind. I’m going to make a greater effort in what’s left of Lent to spring clean myself. I’ll try to move my focus away from the trivial things of this world and set my sights on the next one. Instead of taking Donald Trump’s tweets seriously (that way leads to insanity) I’ll try to take the Holy Father’s words more seriously. When he talks of being tolerant of people in unorthodox marriages and reaching out to strangers I’ll do my best to ‘get with the programme’.

It’s worth remembering at this time that Jesus went through all his suffering and dying to save people who were not Catholics, not particularly good and some were downright bad. That is still the mission of the Church. We are here to bring sinners (including me) to Christ and through Christ to Heaven. Now when it comes to the final judgement and I have to account for myself, what am I to say in mitigation for my sins? I think that helping to bring a sinner to Jesus will go down much better than I always put money in the plate and I never kept bad company.

My February Column – Full Text

Lent has begun; I suppose you knew that already. What I really mean is that we are now in a process of rethinking our attitudes, examining our behaviour and acknowledging our sinful ways. Looking in the mirror on Ash Wednesday I see a marked man, literally marked with a large splodge of ashes on his forehead. Does sister Moira deliberately make my mark bigger or is it just my guilty conscience?

I’m marked as a sinner, depressing isn’t it? In this Year of Mercy I’m looking for God’s mercy, asking him to forgive my sin and hoping to prove by my fasting and good works that I’m worth saving. The truth is that my sacrifices during Lent can’t save me. I’m saved by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. That might seem an unhappy thought that I’m not able to save myself, but there is another side to it.

If the God who made the Universe and everything in it can go to the bother of saving me, not a group of people but me, then that is surely a plus. If God, who knows everything about me can still be merciful then perhaps I should take a leaf out of his book. Perhaps I should start being merciful to myself. If I can see myself as someone that God thinks is worth saving then I should think that too.

I can start to see Lent, not as a punishing time but as a time when I rebuild myself. Giving up red wine during Lent might not be much fun but I should be able to see it as something positive, perhaps even enjoy it (steady on there!). Well, if not enjoy it I can certainly be reassured by the fact that I can exercise free choice.

Coming this early in the Year of Mercy, I’m going to use this Lent to make some changes. The first thing I’m going to do is to have mercy on me. Yes, I’m starting with me. I’m going to face up to my faults and have a look at who I really am. I have to admit to myself that I’m not perfect (not a word of this to my wife) and see that it’s ok. I don’t have to deny my faults but see them as God sees them, the things I have to work on to improve myself.

That might sound easy but I think it’s what we used to call examination of conscience before confession. Like most people my self-image is not the same as the image others have of me. It’s not just admitting that my hair has mostly gone but admitting that I make mistakes more often that I let on. I need to take an honest look at myself to find what it is about me that stops me having that close relationship with God that He really wants.

I need to get a better understanding of that relationship. I need to stop seeing God as someone I can call upon when things tough but ignore for the rest of the time. God is not just someone I meet in church. God is not even someone I live with. God’s invitation is to share my life. This came home to me the other day at Mass. In the Eucharist Jesus comes to us, actually part of us. We say our prayers and then go off and continue life as before. How can that be?

How often have we seen news items of some personality shaking hands with their fans and the fan saying “I’ll never wash that hand!” ? What is it about me that lets me go away after Mass and forget that Jesus is actually with me? It’s a sign of how merciful He is that He keeps coming back. How would I behave if I could only see myself in communion with Jesus? It’s God’s mercy that makes me worth saving. I need to be merciful enough to see that I am too important to just regard myself as ordinary.

Christians have received the gift of Faith. They have been chosen to have that gift for a purpose. What is our purpose then? To misquote an old catechism answer, God made us to know Him and love Him. So getting to know God would seem to me to be a priority. How do I go about getting to know God this Lent? If you want to get to know someone better you need to spend time with them, talk to them and, most importantly, listen to them. Let’s take that in order.

I need to spend more time with God this Lent. It makes sense to be where God is to be found; I need to go to Him rather than wait for Him to come to me. That sounds like going to church. Lent is a good time for that because there are lots of opportunities for me to get to church and spend some time with God. Now I could go to Mass every day but unless I’m really participating, not letting my mind wander, I’m not really getting closer to God. That brings us to the second part.

I need to talk to God. I could kneel in church and recite Hail Marys and Our Fathers but not really communicate. How would you feel if your visitors came and recited poetry and then left? God wants to hear what you have to say. I’m sometimes reluctant to do that in case I give away something I’m hiding from God. As you know, that is really stupid because God knows more about me that I do. I’m really hiding things from myself. Talking to God about these things makes me face up to them and perhaps see areas of my life I need to change.

Last of all I need to listen to God. This can be a problem because God doesn’t usually appear to me to spell out what He has to say. Listening to God often doesn’t require the use of your ears. A deeper kind of listening is required. When God speaks to us it just requires us to be open to Him. Sometimes we know what he is saying but choose to ignore it because it’s not what we want. A lady in our parish was being asked by a friend why God doesn’t answer her prayers and give her what she requested. Her answer to the question was that God’s answer might be “No”.

So this Lent I’m going to have to get into church more often, not just Sunday Mass. I’m going there to visit God, not to chat with my neighbours. I’m going to concentrate on being with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

I’m going to have to pray more meaningfully, telling God what’s going on in my life and discussing the real issues, not the usual list of wants. I’m going to look deeply into myself to identify the really important things that God wants me to see to. Prayer is a two way communication and I’m going to listen out for what God is saying to me, either deep within myself or through the people God sends along to me. I wonder who they might be. Probably not someone I ever thought of a a messenger from God. It could be you.

Free E-Book Offer This Week Only

My Kindle book “The Way of The Cross” is on free offer from Amazon this week (8th February 2016 – 12 the February 2016) . Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.Here’s something to aid contemplation.

Find it here on the UK site

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00U1JYB9G?keywords=Joseph%20McGrath&qid=1454782879&ref_=sr_1_4&sr=8-4