What are you afraid of?

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 2nd November 2018.

Are you afraid of the dark? Lots of people need a little nightlight in their bedroom in order to get to sleep. Are you afraid of dogs, birds or even clowns? Yes, fear of clowns; there is a word for it, ‘coulrophobia’. Fear is natural. Fear alerts us to danger and sets the body to deal with the danger. It can prompt the body to produce adrenaline, enhancing the ability to fight or flee. Fear can be a lifesaver.

I’ve always had a fear of snakes. I always thought I’d be able to get away from a snake as snakes slither about fairly slowly. That idea was destroyed one day on a dusty road in the bush when a six foot long snake shot across in front of the truck I was in. I was shocked at how fast it could move. I’m even more afraid of snakes now.

Fear can be used to control others. Fear of strangers can turn people against incomers. If the incomers look different, a different colour or unfamiliar dress they are easy to recognise. Those who use a different language or practice a different religion are often rejected by the indigenous communities. This has been exploited by politicians who play on people’s fear of strangers to whip up support.

Fear doesn’t always help. You hear of people being frozen in fear when finding themselves in a very dangerous situation. Fear sometimes stops us doing what we know we should be doing. Sometimes we are afraid of appearing to be different. We don’t want to stand out from the crowd. Being seen to be different can result in us being left out or even ostracised. We all, naturally, want to belong to the society we live in. Sometimes we accept norms and behaviours that don’t really fit in with our views.

In today’s world it can be difficult to recognise what is a generally accepted view and what is an idea that is made to look like the normal view. Pressure groups use the press, social media and public demonstrations to promote ideas. For example we can promote sexual equality and demand that men and women have equal rights. We can go further and say that equality is the basic human right. Not many will argue with that. Then we can claim that those who are uncertain about their gender should be treated equally. Finally we can claim that everyone has the right to choose their gender.

We might find these arguments confusing but difficult to dispute. They can sound reasonable. Official bodies and political parties accept them; nobody wants to alienate potential voters. The pressure is on us to accept this new norm and conform. Who wants to stand out from the crowd?

Of course we must stand out from the crowd if the crowd is wrong. Now I have no doubt that there are people with genuine gender problems. These may be rooted in their biology, physiology or psychology. The appropriate professionals can bring them the help they need and assist in the decisions they take. That is a far cry from declaring that anyone can choose the gender they wish to have. It’s an idea that is not only misguided but can be dangerous.

A friend of mine was telling me recently about being taken to task by a pupil because he referred to her as a girl. She refused to be regarded as either male or female. Realising he was dealing with a delicate situation he asked her how she wished to be addressed. She replied that she should be referred to as ‘it’. The teenage years can be difficult enough coming to terms with one’s sexuality without confusing the issue.

I’ve heard of parents of new-born babies taking a gender neutral approach to child rearing, allowing the child to choose their gender at some later stage. It seems to me that we are taking away any certainties in our lives for no good reason. It is the result of muddled thinking. Thinking that equality is the basic right was the first mistake; it is not. The basis of any society is truth. Society cannot work effectively if it is not based in absolute truth.

This gender issue is not the only one where ignoring the truth is causing problems. We recently saw an occasion where a government minister was forced to apologise to Parliament for misleading the house (you can’t say lying in the House of Commons) about the results of an investigation into her department. We have an American President who appears on television in the morning saying one thing and later in the evening says the opposite.

In international negotiations we have the British Government signing an agreement and months later telling us that that agreement is no longer valid. Without certainty nobody can trust us. Life becomes impossible without the truth.

Where can we find this certainty? How do we deal with the fear of rejection if we stand out from the crowd? As Christians we must expect to be at odds with the world. We take our lead from Jesus. How did Jesus react to rejection? In John’s gospel we read that Jesus told the people something that disturbed them.

“I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”

John 6:51

Now many of the people who heard this could not accept it and walked away. Jesus was not put off by this. He made no attempt to bring them back. He didn’t change anything he said to win them over. The truth is the truth and you either accept it or reject it.

If we find ourselves being rejected because we believe in the truth and that does not comply with the accepted norm how do we react? How do we deal with the fear of rejection? Again we look to Jesus as our guide.

Jesus warned his disciples that they would face rejection and even persecution.

“Do not be afraid of them therefore. For everything that is now covered be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight; what you hear in whispers, proclaim from the housetops.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Matthew 10: 26, 28

The message is clear. Don’t be afraid. You can choose to be rejected by the world and be accepted by the God who created everything or give in to the world and face a far greater rejection in the future. We have recently seen Christians in the Middle East willingly give up life itself rather than deny the truth. I’m not suggesting we should seek martyrdom but we must be strong in the Faith and proclaim the message of the Gospel by our behaviour and in how we deal with our fellow man. Or as my mother used to say, ‘Tell the truth and shame the Devil.’

Joseph McGrath

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Scandals in the Church

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 5th October 2018

Reading the newspapers and watching the news on television recently has become a painful experience for Catholics. Every day seems to bring more stories of child abuse perpetrated by priests, nuns and bishops. Priests have been sentenced; bishops have been accused of covering up abuse and we have looked on, aghast, wondering how this could have happened.

Child abuse has been exposed in other churches as well. Politicians and others in power, staff in children’s homes and youth groups have all stood accused of abuse. That’s bad enough but surely it should not happen in our Church. After all, we are supposed to be the good guys. The world that was brought up on priests played by Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien who turned youngsters away from crime and brought them back to the fold in those old films is shocked to find abuse in the Catholic Church. I’m shocked too.

My idea of the good guys was fashioned in my Saturday afternoon visits to the Greens Cinema with all the other boys in our street. Every week we were treated to cowboy films. We recognised the good guys by their white hats and the bad guys by their black hats. Life was simple then. Sometimes the plot would take a different turn and one of the good guys would fail to live up to expectations, a bad goodie. Then one of the bad guys would do something honourable, a good baddie. That sometimes prompted arguments about whether one character was a good baddie or a bad goodie. It can be hard to tell in real life too.

I was brought up to respect all clergymen, priests, ministers or whatever. We expected these people to be above anything bad. It comes as a shock to find that they might just be bad goodies or even good baddies. What we have failed to recognise is that they are just human beings like the rest of us. Being good does not come with the collar, it is the same struggle we all have, worse because so much more is expected.

The most recent trend has become the finger pointing in the hierarchy. Even Pope Francis has been blamed for not having dealt with these problems, even those that occurred well before he became pope. Now this idea that someone out there should have dealt with this and it must be all their fault doesn’t seem to fit well with what I think the Church is. The Catholic Church is not a large corporation where the board of management decide everything and tell the rest of us what we should do.

The Church is the Body of Christ, alive and working in the world. We are all parts of that body. Just as problems with my foot affect the rest of my body (especially in the mornings) problems with any one of us affect the whole body of the Church. It seems to me that we all bear some responsibility for the health of the Church. The revelations of abuse, while painful, are vital for the health of this body. When I read of the abuse of children in homes run by the Church it reminded me of the violence that was meted out to children in our schools. It is only in recent years that corporal punishment was banned in our school system. Before that it was acceptable to belt pupils for getting an answer wrong. That was the norm in Scotland. The Church’s failure, our failure,

to oppose this attitude is the disgrace. We all accepted this as normal behaviour. Abusing children was OK. This was not a problem with priests and bishops. This was a problem with the whole of society.

How can it be that people who repeatedly heard Christ’s teaching about how to cherish children accepted cruelty? It makes me wonder about the real depth of our belief in the Gospel. Have we been going through life paying lip service to Christ’s teaching while accepting the moral values of the world? Is it any wonder then that young people accept the world’s views on sexuality, abortion and materialism, rejecting the Church’s teaching?

I was brought up with the view that the priests were the spiritual descendants of the apostles. They had to carry on the work of evangelisation in the world. I’m now beginning to realise that this is too simplistic. We are all the spiritual descendants of the apostles and it is our job to bring the Gospel to the world. The priests and bishops have a special role in that as they bring us the sacraments but we are the main bringers of the Gospel. In my daily life I have contact with people who will never meet a priest. Who else will bring Christ into their lives?

Now I hear you saying, “Who are you to bring the Gospel? You are just a sinner like everyone else.” and that’s true. I am a sinner, just like everyone else in the Church is a sinner. That’s the whole point. Christ came to save sinners, us. As an individual I’m not really equipped to go out to the world and convert it to the Gospel. As part of the Body of Christ; as part of a Church strong in faith and committed to convert ourselves into the people God wants us to be, I can have an effect on the world.

Really, these current abuse scandals should make us take a good look at ourselves. Do we just observe the letter of the law or are we imbued with the spirit of the law? Are we obsessed with the minute details of Catholicism and blind to the big view of the ministry we are baptised into? Trotting out to Sunday Mass and sitting there, chatting to our neighbour, while Christ Himself becomes present on the altar seems to be missing the point. Opting for macaroni cheese for dinner on a day of fast and abstinence but ignoring those who have no food is a sign we have lost the plot.

As long as we rely on our own strengths and abilities alone we will fail in our mission of evangelisation. We can only succeed when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us. We can’t put priests and bishops on a pedestal where we see them as possessing supernatural powers. We are all fallible. On our own we fail to match up to the Gospel. We can only succeed when we allow the Spirit to use us. For that to happen to me I must change the way I look at the world.

I must become more aware of my dependence on the Holy Spirit. I must think of the gifts I have been given as tools. I have eyes to let me see. I must look critically at what I see. I have a brain to let me think and I must think about I see and make a judgement on what is right and wrong. I must act on my judgements and use the gift of speech to speak out against what is wrong and speak up for what is right. Our school motto in Columba High School was ‘Speak out for Justice’. If we all do that there will be fewer scandals in the future.

Church Scandals – Who is at fault?

My column is published today in the Scottish Catholic Observer. Who is to blame for the recent scandals? Is it the priests, the bishops or even the Pope? Get your copy this weekend for my take on this. It’s sure to be controversial so make sure you get your copy this weekend. If you miss it you’ll have to wait ’till next weekend to get the full text here.

What Do You Covet? The Last Commandments.

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 7th September 2018

This is the last of my articles on the Ten Commandments. I’ve decided to look at the ninth and tenth commandments together because they deal with the same idea, coveting. Coveting is not a word we use so much today so I looked it up. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary it is defined as

“to want to have something very much, especially something that belongs to someone else . ”

That’s fairly straightforward but why is it so important as to require two commandments? Presumably we would want something because it is better than what we have. What is wrong with wanting something better? I think it is a very important part of human nature to want to improve. We are the only species capable of making changes that improve our world.

Take the houses we live in. When I was a wee boy I lived in a tenement building where three homes on each landing shared one toilet. Now I live in a house that has two toilets all to itself. We have a natural desire to want to improve ourselves and we often see that as meaning we need better things.

Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, understood from his uncle’s study of the human mind that we all aspire to better ourselves. He found a way to harness this to persuade people to change their behaviour. At the end of World War I, one hundred years ago, American industry had geared up for war production. Now the war was over they needed people to buy things to replace the demands of the war.

Bernays put his ideas to work and devised a strategy to increase demand for cigarettes. He took up the campaign for emancipation of women and In a parade in New York had women parade smoking cigarettes under the banner of ‘Torches of Freedom’. Women smoking had been frowned upon now this was a campaign to get women to rebel and assert their equality with men. The market for cigarettes virtually doubled. Public relations had come to maturity. We can be persuaded to want something we don’t need.

It seems to me that we all need a positive self-image if we are to be happy. We need to know that we are important, that someone holds us in some regard. The effects of loneliness are corrosive and we can see this in the rise in the suicide rate. We are often persuaded that we can prove our importance by the things we have. For some that means wearing the latest fashion. We discard perfectly good clothes and replace them with something new. For me that usually results in a jacket that I am comfortable in being dumped and a new one purchased because my wife won’t be seen with me in the ‘shabby’ one.

Human relationships suffer the same way. We are constantly shown images of women with ‘perfect’ figures and men with muscular stomachs. We are persuaded that someone else’s wife of husband is better than the one we have and desire to have them. Marriages break up. Families are disrupted. Nobody is really happy.

Money is the other thing we desire because it can put us up there with the elite. Billionaires can display their wealth with multiple mansions, yachts and even personal planes. How we would love to be like them. The Lottery and the Euro Millions take in vast fortunes each week because we think that a big win would sort out all our problems. A couple of months ago someone I know won the Millionaire raffle on the lottery. He won one million pounds. He gave half of it to his son to buy a house and spread the rest over his nieces and nephews. He virtually gave it all away. He is a very happy man because he has solved problems for other people.

I have come across a few millionaires in my career. They all looked miserable. Rarely a smile crossed their faces. Their money never made them happy. On a flight earlier in the year I watched a film, “All the Money in the World” about John Paul Getty who was the world’s richest man. His grandson had been kidnapped and he refused to pay the ransom. It reminded me of an interview Alan Wicker did with him. He was unhappy living in England. He wanted to be in America but was afraid to fly in case the plane crashed and thought that a boat might sink so he had to stay put. He was thoroughly miserable.

How often do these things we covet actually make us unhappy? Surely we should be happier when we have them? But we don’t. How many people have be caught by the Nigerian scam where they get an email from a woman whose husband hid millions in a bank vault and she needs help to get it out. Send her the money to get access to the money and share in the riches. The money is sent and vanishes for ever.

It seems to me that this all brings unhappiness. I think I’ve spotted the reason. We are all striving for happiness. To be happy we must feel that we are respected and loved by others. We look around to find ways of achieving that. Of course we are looking in the wrong place. Popularity is a fleeting thing. You can be a hero today and be forgotten tomorrow. You are still the same person but the world moves on.

To achieve happiness you need to look at who you really are. You are not the sum of your possessions. You are not the person others see. You are unique. Your existence here is not random; you are here for a reason. Kojak’s catch phrase was “Who loves ya baby?” (If you remember that you are as old as me.) It is the key to happiness.

The answer is simply that you are loved by the only one who can really see you as you really are. You are loved by the God who made the universe and everything in it. If the creator of everything that exists loves you despite all the things you don’t like about yourself why would you worry about what anybody else thinks? You don’t need a private plane, a floating gin palace or Miss World on your arm. That’s why the ninth and tenth commandments tell you not to covet anything. Things make you unhappy. George, who gave away the million, is one happy man. You can be too.

The Eighth Commandment – Full Text

This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on 10th August.

This month I’m considering the eighth commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Is this really a directive that will make you happy? Sometimes we tell lies. We might call them little white lies as we use them to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to avoid a confrontation. Can that be wrong? Why does telling the truth get such a good reputation?

George Washington, the first US President, is reputed have shown a tendency to tell the truth from an early age. The story goes that as a six year old he was given a gift of a hatchet. He reputedly chopped his father’s cherry tree with it, causing some damage. When confronted by his father he apparently replied “I cannot tell a lie, I damaged the tree.” This earned him the reputation of honesty. However the story was invented by Mason Locke Weems, his first biographer. It is, in fact, a lie.

Should we always tell the truth or lie with a good intent? One situation where people sometimes tell lies is in writing references for someone’s job application. The might hope to advance the person’s career, exaggerating their abilities and achievements to give them a leg up. Perhaps they want the person to get the job to move a problem on to someone else to deal with. In either case the candidate will be set up to fail in the new job, causing trouble for them and their new employer. Better to just, truthfully, tell the good things. By reporting that the applicant for the secretary’s job makes a great cup of tea you can tell the truth and say nothing negative, The prospective employer should get the message.

The commandment talks of bearing false witness which makes us think of being a witness, whether in court or in reporting an incident. The ends of justice can be thwarted when lies are told to protect the guilty. Lying can not only protect the guilty but can result in an innocent person being imprisoned unjustly. There have been many cases of people who have been released after many years in jail when their case has been reviewed and found to be based on false evidence. I wonder how many innocent people have been imprisoned unjustly and were never cleared.

The difficulty we have when lies are told is that it can cause a breakdown in trust. The story of the boy who was bored and cried “Wolf” just to see the people run out to defend the flock illustrated the point well. Eventually the people were fed up with his game and when the wolf did appear they ignored his cries. They had lost trust in him. How often does that happen today?

One important area of public life where trust is very important is politics. We elect politicians to form a government and work to bring about good results for the country. We trust that they will do what they promise. Very often they do not achieve what they had set out to do. This may not be because they were telling lies but rather they get the job and find things are not as straight forward as they had assumed while they were campaigning. We have to trust them on that.

Where the trust breaks down is when politician are found to be misleading. Misleading Parliament is a serious offence. Esther McVey was forces to apologise to Parliament when she was found to have made a report to Parliament which was the complete opposite of the truth. She claimed that she had unintentionally misled Parliament rather that lied to hide a very critical report on her department’s work.

These incidents can cause people to lose trust in our politicians and our political system is damaged as a result. Many now are ready to disregard anything politicians say because of the behaviour of a few. The US President has become infamous for his use of ‘Fake News’ both by telling lies openly and by claiming that any criticism of his behaviour is just fake news.

We seem to have become a society for whom the truth is whatever we choose to believe. We long ago decided that unborn children are not really human. Aborting them is not killing. Now we face claims that abortion is a human right. All along I thought the right to life was a human right. In our modern world there is no such thing as an objective truth; truth is what we want it to be. I think that sums up my problem with this issue. As a Christian I live in two worlds, the Christian world and the modern world. These worlds are at odds on the issue of the truth.

In Christianity the truth plays a central part in our existence. In John’s gospel Jesus mentions the Truth twice. When Jesus was preparing the disciples for his leaving them he reassures them that they will be able to follow him later. Thomas asks how they can follow if they don’t know where he is going. How can they follow if they don’t know the way?

Jesus said:

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.
No one can come to the Father except through me.
If you know me you know my Father too.
From this moment you know him and have seen him.

John 14: 6,7

Jesus is saying that the Truth is not something we decide for ourselves. Recognising the truth seems to be essential if we are to reach God the Father and our salvation. Jesus seems to be saying that He is the way to the Father and eternal life and he personifies the truth. Later he goes further.

When he has been arrested and is eventually taken before Pontius Pilate he is questioned by the Roman Governor. Pilate asks Him why his people have handed Him over to be executed. Jesus explains that His kingdom is not of this world.

Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice. ‘Truth?’ said Pilate ‘What is that?’

John 18: 37,38

So that seems to be the position that Christians are in, facing a choice of two worlds. Which world do we want to belong to? The eighth commandment tells us that we belong to the world Jesus is leading us to; where we can find true happiness. That’s the choice I’m facing. Do I subscribe to a world of objective truth where black is black and white is white or am I to be happier in a world where white can be declared the New Black?

Perhaps I would prefer a world where I can be a man today and just declare myself to be a woman tomorrow? I can make up my own truth and you will be declared intolerant if you do not agree. I can’t see that leading to happiness. It seems to me that this is a recipe for social upheaval and prepares the way for the unscrupulous to manipulate people. To use the old expression ‘It will all end in tears.’

My February Coolumn – Full Text

This month I’ve been thinking about the Fourth Commandment, Honour thy father and thy mother. At first glance that seems straightforward. It could be translated as ‘Be quiet and obey your parents’. In most cases that would be good advice (speaking as a parent). However, life is not always so straightforward. What if you are an orphan? Who should you honour then? Logically you would be required to honour your legal guardian or those in authority over you. So it’s not just about father and mother then.

The implication is that we should honour those in authority. What if those in authority, even parents, are not a good influence? We surely should not obey in matters that are wrong. So honour is not simply a matter of obeying. Did you always just obey your parents or did you question what they told you? I certainly questioned things and sometimes my questioning led me to a better understanding of what was right and sometimes it raised issues questioning our assumptions.

Now, honour is not a term we normally use. What exactly is meant by Honour in this commandment? It certainly implies deferring to our parents or those in authority over us. But it also tells us more about our relationship with our parents as we get older. It’s not only children who should honour their parents adults are also under this obligation. The nature of honouring our parents changes as we become independent of them. As parents get older their children take on responsibility for looking after them.

This can take the form of dropping in to see that they are doing okay, helping with tasks that are now beyond them and generally looking out for them. This will just seem normal behaviour to many of you who have family fussing over you or even bossing you about. I used to imagine that all families behaved in this sort of way but recently I have begun to see things differently.

There seem to be lots of stories of children being abused or even killed by family members, even parents. Surely if children have to honour their parents the other side of the coin is that parents must love and honour their children. I was disturbed by an item in the news recently about a child who had killed a small boy. He is an adult now and finds himself in trouble for having indecent images. It made me wonder how a child could develop into someone who could do terrible things. I can’t believe that he was born with a terrible urge to do harm. What happened to that child to cause him to be the person he now finds himself to be?

Are we now becoming a people who regard children as a possession rather than someone who has been given into our care? Medical advances have given us the ability to make choices we never had in the past. Embryos can be frozen to be implanted when it is convenient. We may soon be able to choose the design of the baby by genetic engineering.

We have seen cases of marital breakup where one parent has killed the children so that the other parent will not have them. These are examples of people in desperation. They are not behaving as they would in a normal day. However we see examples of people in famine ravaged countries walking for days without food and water in the attempt to find help for their child. We see parents sacrificing their own lives to save their children. Now those are desperate situations. Where have we gone wrong?

Perhaps the wording of the commandment is misleading. It could be seen as putting the onus on the child to be obedient. Have we lost sight of the implication that to be honoured the parent must first be honourable? If someone in authority is to be honoured then they must first be honourable. If a government passes a law which is morally wrong we would not be expected to obey it. Parents teach their children by example. If parents do not act in an honourable way then that’s how the children will learn to behave.

When I think about it I realise that this is not a commandment about children or about parents. This is a commandment about family. The vision encompassed in it is of a traditional family unit with parents and children and the extended family too. The relationships between the family members and their responsibilities are fairly well understood. But the traditional family is fast becoming a thing of the past. Lots of children are now growing up in different sorts of families. There are single parents taking on the responsibilities of both father and mother. There are split families where children live with two separated parents and other less conventional units too.

Where a family is split up as a result of infidelity where is the example of behaving honourably? Where there is acrimony in the breakup what pressures are put on the children? People today are pressured into thinking about what is best for ‘me’. We are constantly being urges to look better, dress better and be more successful. That is not a bad thing in itself. It’s when these things are taken to extremes that we get trouble. If I’m persuaded that doing what’s good for me takes priority over everyone else then that is a problem.

A lot of this is about selling us stuff. We should buy this shampoo because we are worth it. We should drive this car because it creates the right impression. The other night I saw and advert on television where a man declares that he has begun to ski; spend kid’s inheritance. I suppose it’s meant to be funny but it has a serious side. What do our children inherit from us? Money is the least of their inheritance (it will be in our family anyway). Our children inherit attitudes and values that will be with them long after they have spent the cash.

Today it’s all about promoting ‘me’. Christ’s example to us is one of putting us before Himself. He died on the cross to save us and showed us that we too must put our family before ourselves. That was my experience in growing up. As a parent bringing up children in a house I was able to buy and able to provide them with simple luxuries, I was compelled to wonder at how my parents managed to provide for us in the way they did. They did it by putting their children before themselves. They left us an example of how to be a parent, an example I struggle to equal.

So the commandment that I initially thought was really quite straightforward turns out to be nothing of the kind. If these commandments really are God’s guide to happiness then the fourth is the one that brings happiness to everyone involved. Selfless parenting results in children whose attitudes and values will stand them in good stead to face the difficulties in life. Strong family units will tend to produce a society based on honouring and respecting each other. Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?

Keeping the Sabbath Holy? – My January Column – Full Text

Over the last couple of months I’ve been examining the Ten Commandments to see if they are really God’s guide to happiness. This month I’ve been looking at the third Commandment – remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. So what’s the Sabbath day and how do we keep it holy?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us more detail.

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.”

The Jewish Sabbath is a Saturday but the early Church made our day of rest a Sunday to mark the day of Christ’s resurrection. Now I would imagine that having a day when you don’t have to go to work would make most of us happy but why the ban on work and just how practical is that?

In Scotland there are many Christians who believe that no work of any kind should be done on a Sunday, The day should be completely reserved for worshipping God. Even household chores must be completed on the Saturday night and Sunday will see no cooking or cleaning. A day spent in close communion with God should make us happy.

A few years ago some island communities were split over the issue of the ferries sailing on a Sunday. For Catholics and many other denominations Sunday does not mean a complete shutdown of normal life. According to my old ‘penny catechism’ the Church requires that we assist at a public Mass and refrain from servile work on a Sunday. I suppose the difference is about what we mean by holy.

Servile work would be going to work as usual, working for pay. Working in the home, preparing meals, tidying up etc. would not be classed as servile work. Whatever we do for our family, making meals, cleaning the kitchen etc. is part of marriage and because matrimony is a sacrament we actually receive grace for doing these things. I think that means these tasks are making the Sabbath holy.

In our society today we are often expected to work on a Sunday as a normal part of the job. We expect the buses and trains to run on a Sunday. Where would we be if the emergency services didn’t work on Sunday? Doctors and nurses in hospitals must work on Sunday. Some people would not be able to get to Mass otherwise. Even in non-essential jobs Sunday working is seen as normal. The shops are open on Sunday. How many of us leave Mass and go straight to the supermarket or meet friends in a coffee shop to catch up? These things require people to work on Sunday.

It is also permissible to indulge in entertainment like going to a football match (though some of the matches I’ve seen require a great stretch of the imagination to describe them as entertainment) or the cinema or some other entertainment. These things promote bonding among friends and family. But what about the workers; those who have to work so that we can be entertained also have need of family time. They may get time off during the week but that might not allow for family activity.

I noticed that Poland has decided that Sunday shopping should be phased out to allow the workers to have their day of rest as well as everyone else. This may not be too popular with the shoppers but I for one would be delighted to have one day in the week when I can’t be taken shopping.

So what exactly do we mean by holy? This is a question that has got me into arguments in the past. Some would cling to an image of someone kneeling in prayer before a crucifix or a statue of a saint. Hands joined in prayer are a famous image on prayer cards. There is no doubt that being in contemplation of God or in deep prayer would be described as being holy. However I don’t think that is the only context that could be described as holy.

Saint Thomas described holiness as the virtue by which we make all our acts subservient to God. It would follow then that whenever we act in ways that follow Jesus’ example we are being holy. How, then, could we keep the Sabbath holy? If we join with our fellow Catholics in the celebration of the Eucharist we are joining with them in communion with Christ. Jesus spent time withal sorts of people, his disciples, friends and many people he did not know. He shared meals with them and engaged in conversation.

I would consider from his example that we could spend the Sabbath with family and friends, sharing a meal, conversation and entertainment (there is no mention of Jesus going to the football but we can disregard that) and act in a way that is holy. When we are dealing with those we don’t know we should treat them with respect and friendliness.

You might argue that we should always behave in that way and you would be right. Why would we expect to spend Sunday behaving in one way and the rest of the week behaving differently? Really we should try to keep every day holy. We don’t need to walk around with a beatific smile on our face every day but I suspect Jesus didn’t do that either.

Now the question is simply one of whether this approach to holiness would make us happy. Now it seems to me that breaking up the working week so that life is not just one long unbroken trail of working days must be good for the psyche. Whether your work is hard physical labour or some more cerebral occupation you need to stop and rest regularly.

Whatever your station in life, Prime Minister or bin man, it is good to stop and consider the relationship you have with God. You were made by the God who created the universe and all its wonders. In your Sunday Mass you receive the Saviour who died to save you personally. He knows your name and listens to your prayers. God has no favourites; you are just as important to Him as the Bishop or the Pope. In that Mass we are all joined together through Christ. How could that fail to make us happy?

In making our Sabbath day a holy day we can transcend the daily niggles and hurts that can make us unhappy. We stop and remind ourselves that we are passing through all this on a journey to our eternal home. We will leave behind all the worries, all the trivial issues that bother us. We can start a new week ready to face whatever confronts us.

It’s never material things that make us happy. Your new sports car will only make you feel good until you start to hear strange noises or warning lights start blinking on the dashboard. Our happiness depends on our relationships. We need to build good relationships with our friends, family and the people we come into contact with. Our relationship with God is the most important and brings true happiness.

Keeping our Sabbath day holy builds these relationships. So to be truly happy don’t treat the Sabbath as just another day; it’s the most important day of the week.