Holy Ground

It’s well over thirty years since I left the active ministry of the Catholic priesthood, and if someone asked me what if anything I missed the most from that ministry I would have no hesitation to say: hearing confessions. I don’t regard myself as having been a great priest but I do think I had a certain gift when it came to the Sacrament of Reconciliation as confession is properly called in the Catholic Church.

The normative form of the sacrament is individual ‘auricular’ confession whereby a single penitent and a single priest celebrate the sacrament together in privacy and with confidentiality assured. This sacrament was always for me what I would call ‘holy ground’. By that I mean it was a sacred and precious event where penitent and priest were joined by the presence of Christ the Redeemer who manifested His wonderful forgiveness for sins committed and healing grace to do better for the future.

In particular, I had a technique, a simple question, which gently, without any probing or pressure, encouraged the penitent to do more than just ream off a list of sins which sadly was all too common. This rote listing of sins was often an ingrained habit of the penitent and effectively meant little to them and had precious little effect in the way of personal transformation – which is the real core purpose of the sacrament – indeed of every sacrament. This ‘going through the motions’ of confessing a virtually meaningless list of sins was not really the penitent’s fault – rather it was so often due to the pathetic lack of any proper instruction and encouragement to use the sacrament as it should be celebrated. I think for many priests celebrating confession was a case of “quick in, quick out”. Unfortunately this lack lustre attitude tended to be the norm in so much of the Church practice of my youth, and certainly before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

My approach to the sacrament gently encouraged the penitent to – only if they wanted to – open up about what was really bothering them. This could actually be anything but their sin – often more a case of where other people had wounded or were wounding them. As such it may have veered somewhat away from the central purpose but became for them and me a very special and intimate counselling session, often producing a healing moment. That encounter had tremendous value in itself.

But even when it was entirely to do with their sin – but again I would have to qualify that as saying ‘what they thought of as their sin’ – it was wonderfully special. I don’t mean that in any voyeuristic sense: most folks’ sins are fairly banal when all is said and done. Why do I say wonderful – after all, we’re talking about sin: doing bad things and failing to do good things?

The simple truth is that the very act of coming to confession implied that the individual was sincere in wanting forgiveness. At the very least they were well intentioned, and that is most acceptable to God. They may well have had a poor notion of what exactly was sin in their life: sometimes exaggerating and sometimes minimising, and often missing the real fault, but their desire for forgiveness was almost always sincere. Otherwise why were they doing something that was accepted as difficult: shedding light on their ‘soggy mess’ and the humiliation that came with it?

The incredible thing was – and this may be hard to properly explain if you haven’t experienced it – in opening their hearts and trying their best to articulate their failings, they were most lovable in their honesty and vulnerability. This honesty and vulnerability entailed a real humility on their part – again, so acceptable to God. And a vulnerability that also placed a very sacred trust on me, which I hope I never abused.

The sacrament of confession, meaningfully celebrated, is a wonderful thing, and I know that many people left my confessional with lighter hearts and that in itself was a moment of grace. I know that God may well hate the sin but without doubt He truly loves the sinner.

The sacrament was therefore often for me a graced moment and I’m not exaggerating when I call it holy ground: a precious and intimate meeting of two souls, both sinners, and a profound encounter with our merciful God. I pray that all priests realise the great duty and the great privilege they have in being able to offer people such a wonderful encounter.

Please pray for priests!


An Argument for the Existence of God

This blog is essentially a revision of some previous blogs.

I would contend that there is no proof for the existence of God. But neither is there any proof that God does not exist. In fact, all of us live by faith – even atheists. We all subjectively evaluate our life and our world by our experiences and biases, often inherited from the significant adults in our circle. As such we all construct a position in regard to reality and many never change that stance throughout the ups and downs of life. Indeed we also from our earliest years create a relative identity for ourselves – a persona that others may often see through! For many, there is no reasoned basis for their stance – emotion and memory can frequently command how we react and behave. No one, no one, can honestly claim a fundamental and incontrovertible validation for their life stance. Me included.

If there is no absolute proof of the existence of God, what, if any, proposition can we make for such a belief, particularly when – let’s be honest – there is no visible evidence of any supernatural realm or entities?

I think we have to go inwards. By that I mean we have to make the effort to quieten down and take time to try to discern what is most fundamental to our human nature. I do think it is a given that what is most core to the individual is also most universal – common to all people. Among our core needs and desires there are obviously the need for food, shelter, and fellowship. But perhaps even more fundamental than these are two key drives:

~ the desire to be happy;

~ the desire to be happy for as long as possible.

If you yourself make that effort to humbly look into your heart and soul, and try and discern what is most central to your being I think you will recognise this universal truth.

It follows then that there are two possible scenarios arising from this universal human yearning for lasting happiness:

~ realising these needs, humans have made up a belief system in a loving God who meets their desires – God is therefore a human construct, literally ‘pie in the sky’;

~ these needs exist because they were put there by the architect – God Himself.

It should then follow that, taking the two extremes of unbelief and belief, there are two basic attitudes to life:

~ the non-existence of God tends to challenge one to make the most of this short life because it is really all we have: while some settle for apathy and even fatalism, nonetheless others do live a life of love and selfless service;

~ many God-believers, but by no means all, go through life with hope of something after death and even some vision of a greater life, with the possibility that eternal happiness and fulfilment may await them.

What this boils down to is that the only real prospect for the satisfying of our need for lasting happiness is belief in a divine being who can and wants to give us eternal fulfilment. No other belief or life stance can hold out this prospect. The reality of death confirms this for us. ‘No God’ equals no possibility of ultimate fulfilment. A God, and that needs to be a loving God, does hold out the possibility of lasting happiness, even beyond natural death.

The proposition I put before you then is that, deep in the human heart there are profound desires that only a loving father God can ever satisfy. While in no way being proof, this human reality indicates and resonates with the existence of such a God. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus is that we do indeed have such a God. We were made by love, made for love, and will find our true fulfilment in love. And that love is everlasting.

Remember – we cannot deal in absolute proofs one way or the other, but faith in the God of Jesus gives meaning and strength for real daily life and holds out the thrilling prospect that our deepest desires will find fulfilment in the eternal Kingdom of Love.

I know which life stance I choose, and in faith humbly try to follow Jesus,

peace to you,


Preaching is a Funny Thing

Most of us are familiar with the notion of ‘Chinese whispers’, where a specific thought or sentence is passed, one by one, along a series of people, with the end result being that the original meaning is entirely changed by the end of the process. Such as: “Fred left the house unlocked this morning” somehow becomes: “Ted got the drain unblocked yesterday evening”! This of course indicates how different individuals hear, perceive and relay messages, and underlines the complexity of human communication.

Preaching – which we could define as the proclamation of spiritual messages – is of course a form of communication, and certainly has to obey the rules and the complexities of communication. But I would argue that it is in many ways a special case, perhaps even a ‘funny thing’ in that it has, or should have if it is authentic, an even deeper level of potential complexity: another speaker is involved – God. It might even be that God is speaking through the preacher’s efforts… or even in spite of their efforts!

I clearly remember from my days as an active Catholic priest one particular incident that taught me a valuable lesson. It was at a morning mass during a parish mission in Scotland. I had preached a short sermon (I can’t actually remember on what!) but a woman came up to me afterwards. She was very excited and proceeded to thank me most profusely. What a wonderful sermon I had preached, and how it spoke to her of God!

I’m sure I glowed in the warmth of her appreciation but I was taken aback as she proceeded to explain how my ‘message’ had struck her so forcefully: she had been struck by what was almost a throw away remark, if indeed I had actually spoken the words she ‘heard’. The truth was that she had heard something that resonated with what was already churning in her spirit – but, nothing really to do with what I had been speaking about! My words had simply been the occasion for what was a fertile seed to suddenly sprout! As she went on in delighted vein, I realised that she wasn’t talking about what was my message at all, but if anything what had been a very peripheral point. Maybe the sermon had merely been a sacred space for her to hear God speaking directly to her heart?

What had she heard? Most likely not much to do with my wonderful sermon. Possibly at most a word or two of mine, but likely taken out of my context and inserted into her own truth. I suppose that can happen with any oration or even in an informal conversation between two people. We tend to hear not so much what the other is saying but rather what resonates with where our mind and attention currently is. We might even be having a chat with someone but actually thinking about our lunch. Perhaps you’ve had conversations with someone and begun to realise that they are ‘somewhere else’?

People who attend services and listen to sermons will always come with an agenda – by that I mean that they will have joys, sorrows and divers other issues on their minds and hearts. The preacher may often fail to realise that his or her audience is not a blank canvas just waiting to receive his / her wisdom. The very service itself may be that sacred ground where God can, and does, speak His Word on all sorts of levels.

For God will make use of any means or occasion to plant His Word in the human heart. The problem is usually that people are not receptive, and then they complain that God is silent. Or they start by listening but other thoughts spawn in their mind.

As I say, preaching is a ‘funny thing’ – it is a very subtle and mysterious communication. I shudder sometimes when I think back on the responsibility of even trying to be a conduit for God. But He often makes up for our poor efforts.

I hope and pray that this short blog post enables you to hear His truth for you today on whatever level you need. The subject of the blog may not even matter for you!

His will be done in all things,


An Amazing Man

At this time of year Christians listen to the nativity narratives in the Gospel: the story of Jesus’ conception and birth. Jesus and Mary are the central characters of course, but Joseph of Nazareth, the husband of Mary and foster father of Jesus, is also a key figure.

Joseph, the man we read about in the Gospels, is an amazing man. His experience in the whole conception and birth narratives is not a sugary sweet, happy ever after one. In fact, he faces challenges that most ordinary men – and women – would baulk at and probably fail to endure.

Joseph is betrothed to Mary – a strong kind of engagement in Jewish society – and he looks forward to their marriage and to settling down with Mary and having a family, especially sons to carry on his family name and business. Instead, he hears the shattering news that Mary is pregnant – and he knows he is not the father. Again, in Jewish society of that time, this was a very serious matter: Joseph could publicly disown Mary and had rights for her to be punished, perhaps by stoning to death because of her apparent infidelity. Most ordinary men in that situation would be hurt, shattered, and furious to the point of seeking revenge. It would be hard to see how any love could survive such a betrayal. Joseph himself would be humiliated among his peers.

But Joseph is a special man, and he decides to break with Mary but quietly, perhaps making arrangements for her to go far away, and this is to protect her from gossip, shame, and legal punishment. His love for her has not died, but we would be wrong to think that he wasn’t suffering greatly. And added to this, Mary tells him she hasn’t slept with another man but the child in her womb is a miraculous gift – from God. This news might well have left him questioning whether Mary had lost her reason, and he could also suspect that she was trying to ‘pull a fast one on him’. Perhaps she wanted her child and also marriage to Joseph as well?

Joseph must have been in a confused and tortured state of mind. He then gets a vision from an angel who confirms Mary’s bizarre story. Does this revelation settle his dilemma and reassure him? I doubt it, and it’s worth pointing out that neither Mary or Joseph would have had much support from a deeply religious and conservative society. Maybe they had a trusted friend or perhaps even a spiritual advisor, but likely they had to hold this difficult knowledge inside themselves, unable to confide in anyone.

Joseph decides to put his trust in what Mary and the vision have told him – not an easy thing to do, and he must have been riddled with self doubts. And so he walks the walk with Mary all the way to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and then spends years raising this child who is not born of him. Did things get easier for him as time went by? We are not told but we can suspect that he had to struggle with his faith in God’s purpose for the rest of his life.

An amazing man indeed. Could you or I keep faith in God even in the midst of the most bizarre and troubling of circumstances? I suspect that without a thorough grounding in prayer and a strong relationship with God built over many years, it would be beyond most of us to endure. We look for logic and purpose – yet God’s ways are not our ways!

We can learn a lot from Joseph of Nazareth,



When Jesus walked this earth two thousand years ago, it’s perhaps easy to imagine that most folk would have flocked to see and follow him. And indeed, the Gospels do relate that at certain times thousands went many miles even to remote and desolate places in their eagerness to see, hear and even touch him. There were times and places where he struggled to be alone, to pray and to rest, such were the demands from needy and troubled folk.

Was there something visibly striking about this man Jesus? Something in his manner that affected people – perhaps even unnerved them? Children certainly seemed to be attracted to him. Some public sinners risked greater scandal and abuse to reach him. For some people, encountering Jesus was truly life changing. His words and his deeds were remarkable, and the Gospels explicitly state that “he taught with authority”. Something about what he said and did resonated with his very physical presence.

And yet, not everyone was a fan. We know that the civil and religious authorities were alarmed and greatly concerned by him to the extent that they conspired to bring him down and eventually to destroy him. He directly acknowledged this by saying that his values would conflict with the values of the world, and those who lived his values, would encounter suffering and worse. He never denied the Cross that loomed in his future. He even turned and steadfastly headed for Jerusalem where he knew his life was in danger.

Truly, in his lifetime Jesus knew and experienced the warmth of friendship, the adulation of popularity, and the unceasing demands of a people desperate for healing. But he also knew opposition, mockery, deceit, slander, and even betrayal. His very disciples, those closest to him, were also clearly slow to understand his message, even to the point of quietly doubting and arguing behind his back.

Acclamation and scorn in equal measure? And yet, there is perhaps a reaction which is even worse than scorn and opposition… disinterest. The Gospels are not so explicit in this regard. We may wonder if Jesus ever met with disinterest: people who were simply not impressed by him. Did Jesus leave some people ‘cold’?

In my experience I have met individuals who appear not to have a single “spiritual bone in their body”, so to speak. For these people, any talk of eternity, of supernatural or transcendent matters, is simply nonsensical, irrelevant – even boring. I suspect if you’re reading this then you are not one of these people!

In the book of Revelation (3: 15 – 16) we read:

“… you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Pretty strong words, which the writer of Revelation attributes to God’s own Spirit. It’s almost as if God will accept followers and even enemies, but has a hard time with those who sit on the fence. In this sense, God welcomes the sincere atheist, who is after all someone who has thought deeply about spiritual matters and decided against any divine reality. God can cope with atheists! He can cope with sincere agnostics! At least they have paid a kind of compliment to Him by addressing His existence.

Given that God is not optional – He is the very ground of our being, who we come from, who sustains us, and who we are going to – perhaps the biggest insult that any person can give Him is to simply disregard Him. Mind you, God has a thick skin, and is merciful beyond all telling, so no one is cast off and He, as Jesus tells us in the Prodigal Father (Luke 15: 11 – 32), waits patiently for all His children to recognise and come to share His abundant life.

Ultimately, when we do discover the enormity of His love for us, no human being could ever remain unmoved by such love. The challenge of faith is to open ourselves to that love here and now,

in His love, always,