A Catholic Opinion on Yoga

As a Catholic priest with some expertise in New Age matters, I am often asked to comment on the appropriateness of Catholics engaging with yoga. This is not an easy subject, and the best answer partly depends on why the question is being asked. So choose the appropriate link for your situation:

Whichever situation applies, there is one thing which will apply consistently throughout this article: the word ‘yoga’ will be used as a shorthand for hatha yoga, which is the discipline of assuming certain postures (asanas) following the ancient tradition developed in India. There are other forms of yoga which deal less with bodily posture and more with mental meditation, but that’s not what’s usually implied when a Westerner talks about ‘doing yoga’.

Why does yoga propose the particular asanas (postures) which are used? In its original culture, certain postures were associated with particular Hindu deities. Many yoga teachers believe in the flow of spiritual energy, or prana, and in particular the sexual energy known as kundalini – postures may be chosen because of their supposed effect on this energy flow. The Catholic Church has no official position on whether such spiritual energy exists; but whether real or supposed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that any attempt to manipulate such energy, even for a good purpose, is forbidden.

Now, while yoga has its roots in Hindu beliefs and practices, the Catholic Church ‘rejects nothing that is true and holy’ (#2) from other world religions. So is there anything which is ‘true and holy’ within yoga? There’s nothing wrong in principle with breathing and posture exercises in themselves, and these things can be positive for health. So the question is, why does a particular teacher promote particular exercises?

There are three possible reasons for promoting a particular exercise:

  • Blind faith that it works.
  • Empirical evidence showing that it has a beneficial effect on health.
  • The use of the posture in the yoga tradition.

Blind faith is not a good reason for doing anything. To give authority to any practice without good reason is to make an idol out of it; that would be the sin of superstition.

Empirical evidence that a practice is good for health is a valid reason for undertaking the exercises. There is some published evidence that a form of yoga is good for reducing high blood pressure and marginal evidence for promoting good back function.

Of course, the most common reason for promoting an exercise as ‘yoga’ is because of its direct connection to the yoga tradition dating back 5,000 years in India. A yoga instructor may not be fully aware of the heritage behind a particular posture, but there will be a train of trust and acceptance which ultimately roots what is being taught in beliefs in Hindu deities and the flow of prana and kundalini energy.

Is it possible to Christianise yoga? Yes, but it’s not easy. An instructor would need to look at all the possible poses and exercises, and ask which ones should be used for valid, scientific reasons. Then, when teaching, both the instructor and the pupil would need to make an explicit, prayerful, intention thanking God for the good wisdom contained in these exercises while explicitly renouncing any link to the spiritual heritage which brought those poses to consideration. This is necessary to eliminate the possibility that adopting the pose could constitute honouring a false god, which would be a sin against the First Commandment.

Arguably, if you distanced an exercise regime from its Hindu roots in this way, what you would have is not any form of yoga worthy of the name, but merely an exercise regime inspired by it – at which point you might ask whether it doesn’t make more sense to take an aerobics class, work with a physiotherapist, or try Pilates, which doesn’t have a spiritual heritage.

I’m thinking of trying yoga.

OK. So what are you looking for? Some people turn to yoga because they want to keep their body well-toned. Others are seeking meditative exercises which link mind and body in unity. Obviously caring for our bodies and calming our minds are two good goals. That doesn’t mean that we can follow such practices unthinkingly.

Above, I suggested that it was possible to Christianise yoga, but the resulting exercises would hardly be worthy of the name ‘yoga’ at all. Perhaps you can find an instructor consistent with what I outlined above, but it won’t be easy – and you should also make a mental intention to distance yourself from the spiritual heritage of the exercises. Even if you manage to do this, by engaging in something that’s identified as ‘yoga’ you may still still lead others to think that all kinds of yoga are OK (compare St Paul’s argument about why he won’t eat meat sacrificed to idols, even when it’s been blessed in Christ’s name, in I Cor 8). Further, it’s likely that you will be doing your yoga class in the midst of people who aren’t making that same renunciation of spiritual heritage, and who by their implicit or explicit intention to submit to the authority of ‘yoga’ are breaking God’s law.

Our Catholic understanding of deliverance is that even an ill-informed act of consent to a foreign spiritual practice can open up a person to the level of demonic influence known as obsession, and being in the midst of such people even with a personal intention not to consent can expose a person to oppression. That doesn’t mean these things will always happen. It does represent a risk.

So if you are considering trying yoga as a member of the Catholic Church personally committed to be a disciple and witness to Christ, my simple answer is: DON’T. It’s just too difficult trying to engage with yoga in a way which places sufficient distance between yourself and the spiritual consequences, and there is always the risk of being a counter-witness who will lead others into danger. No-one is forcing you to do yoga, even if your best friend is nagging you to go along with her. So find an unproblematic form of exercise – there are plenty of alternatives!

I need to make a decision about yoga happening ‘under my authority’.

Is your child being invited to do yoga in school? Does a yoga group want to hire your parish hall or advertise in the parish magazine? This needs careful handling. Yoga is very slippery when it comes down to offering a coherent reason why Catholics should avoid it. To explain why there may be a problem (which you’ll understand by reading the section above) requires a deep understanding of spiritual warfare and demonic influence. This won’t make sense to the yoga group who want to hire your hall, and may be miles beyond he understanding of many Catholic schoolteachers.

If I had to give a reason to a school why I didn’t want my child to do yoga, I would use the same line as St Paul on meat sacrificed to idols – “If we do Yoga, we could give the impression we are supporting Hinduism, so it would be more appropriate to do aerobics or Pilates.” Ultimately, if that approach fails, I would assert your right to withdraw children from religious activities, and if they say yoga isn’t religious, I would challenge them to demonstrate that the form of yoga being offered has no connection with Hinduism. You should ask for an exhaustive list of the postures and meditations being taught, and for the reasons and heritage behind each one.

If it’s a question of hiring out your hall, great care is needed to avoid falling foul of equalities legislation. You might not want it to happen in your hall but have difficulty ejecting an existing group. Given the great difficulty of purging yoga of its spiritual meanings, you might explain that under charity law, you can only use Catholic property for the advancement of the Catholic faith (which under our respect for the rights of other religions and hospitality to refugees might occasionally mean hiring out our halls for another religious group to worship in as long as this is clearly labelled as such). So we might want to ask the instructor and pupils to either sign a declaration that they acknowledge what they are doing comes from a religious tradition incompatible with Catholicism, or a declaration that they explicitly renounce the Hindu heritage of what they are doing – plus asking the instructor for an exhaustive list of what is being taught and the rationale behind it.

My friend is trying yoga…

You may be concerned for the spiritual health of a friend or colleague who is trying yoga. You are right to be concerned, but proceed carefully. It is very difficult to draw someone to change moral behaviour until they have a Christian motive. So your first steps will be to draw the person through the thresholds of conversion to Christ outlined in Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Once your friend is in the Commitment Zone, you can begin a conversation about whether they see any problem with yoga for a follower of Christ, and if not, invite them to find out about the spiritual heritage of yoga.

Help! I’ve done yoga and I feel bad about it. What should I do?

Don’t panic. You’ve made the most important step, which is realising there’s a problem. As a Catholic, you should go to a priest and make a good confession. You might find that the priest doesn’t think yoga is a problem. Nevertheless, insist that you believe you have honoured foreign gods by practicing yoga, and given a bad example to others, and seek absolution.

If you’re a Christian in a tradition which doesn’t practice confession, then at least make a prayer of confession directly to God.

Once you have repented of your sin, pray thus:

Lord Jesus, I renounce yoga. I take back all authority I have given to any foreign spirits by opening myself to yoga. In the name of Jesus, I take back all authority which I gave to my yoga instructor. I renounce the power of prana and the spirit of kundalini. (Feel free to make the prayer more specific for the names of particular exercises which have bothered you.) I command any and all evil spirits which I have renounced to leave me now, in Jesus’ name.

You might have a prayer-companion, or a sympathetic priest, who will pray with you as you offer this prayer, but you can do so alone. This act will be an important step in your spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus Christ who chooses to give no authority to any other spirit in your life. May God bless you for your desire for spiritual singleness of heart! Walk in the light of Christ, and do not be afraid.

Election Morals 2019

I’ve had a few requests to comment on the UK General Election 2019, so here goes. As a declaration of personal stance I should note that I am not a member of any political party (though I used to be a paying supporter of the Pro-Life Alliance when that was a political party). At past local, general and European elections I have chosen to vote variously for Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Labour and Plaid Cymru candidates.

Casting a vote in the UK is not an easy matter for a conscientious Catholic. Two of the major parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, have made explicit commitments to abortion in their manifestos. Abortion is not the only issue a Catholic voter should consider (read more below) but is a serious matter so we should take stock of this first.

Law and Pledges on Abortion

The situation in Great Britain at present is that killing an unborn child is a crime, but the 1967 Abortion Act and subsequent amendments mean that doctors can legally authorise an abortion of any child at up to 24 weeks’ gestation for the ‘physical or mental health of the mother or family’ (which is broadly interpreted in practice to mean if the mother is distressed enough to ask for an abortion it will probably be granted) and up to birth in the case of a handicapped child.

Abortion policy is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in Wales. Since the Northern Ireland Assembly members have not agreed to allow the Assembly to operate effectively since 2016, the Westminster Parliament voted in July 2019 to revoke the law which makes abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, and require the Government to put in place abortion services in Northern Ireland by the start of April 2020.

The Labour Manifesto pledges to “uphold women’s reproductive rights and decriminalise abortions”. This would mean repealing the current law still applicable in England, Wales and Scotland which makes abortion illegal outside doctor-approved circumstances. It also pledges to make abortion available in Northern Ireland, thereby complying with the July 2019 instruction issued by Parliament.

The Liberal Democrat Manifesto makes a similar commitment, with an explicit mention of preserving the current time limit: “Decriminalise abortion across the UK while retaining the existing 24-week limit and legislate for access to abortion facilities within Northern Ireland.” It also pledges to

  • Enforce safe zones around abortion clinics, make intimidation or harassment of abortion service users and staff outside clinics, or on common transport routes to these services, illegal.
  • Fund abortion clinics to provide their services free of charge to service users regardless of nationality or residency.

The Conservative Manifesto makes no mention of abortion.

I only have limited time to prepare this blog, so I am not considering Green, Brexit Party, or Nationalist perspectives although these will be of interest to voters considering these parties. Such views will probably be of less influence when it comes to forming a Government, except in the case of an SNP-Labour pact, but the SNP Manifesto is not out yet.

None of the 3 main party manifestos mention euthanasia or assisted dying, and this has traditionally been a conscience issue for Westminster parliamentarians.

Other Ethical Issues for Catholics

Abortion is not the only red-line issue for Catholics. There are other actions the Catholic Church also regards as ‘intrinsic evils’, courses of action so bad that they must never be chosen as a flawed means to a good end. Finding a neat list of these in Catholic teaching is not straightforward; Jimmy Akin does a good job of marshalling the relevant parts of Gaudium et Spes and Veritatis Splendor.

The use of weapons of mass destruction is an intrinsic evil, as innocent civilians will be killed and maimed. Biological and chemical weapons are outlawed by treaties, but the UK maintains its own nuclear deterrent. As long as no nuclear war takes place, these weapons create jobs and don’t kill anyone, while abortion results in thousands of deaths… but if a nuclear exchange did take place, the results would be horrific. Using nuclear weapons is clearly immoral; ethicists are divided on whether the threat of using them for the sake of keeping peace is so intrinsically immoral that a Catholic would be obliged to shun a job which produced or deployed such military hardware. Labour has pledged to renew the Trident nuclear deterrent but enter global talks for total nuclear disarmament. The Liberal Democrats make a similar pledge but with an explicit downsizing of our nuclear fleet. The SNP leader has stated that abolishing Trident is her price for a pact. The Conservatives will ‘renew Trident’ with no signal of wanting to enter multilateral disarmament talks.

Other Catholic issues are harder to turn into political red lines. Catholic Social Teaching demands a preferential option for the poor. On the face of it, left-leaning parties promising to spend directly in support of poor people do this. But right-leaning parties will argue that by supporting business they create more opportunities for better-paying jobs and boost the economy, so casting a vote to the right is not automatically an anti-poor act. If left-wing policies reduce economic productivity and lessen the pot of money available, the Government cannot spend what it doesn’t have. Any moral decision involving a complex web of economic forces is not straightforward.

Finally, there’s the tricky question of LGBTQ+ rights. The Catholic Church opposes discrimination, in the sense that it believes no-one should be denied equal access to commercial or government services just because of their sexual identity. But it firmly holds that human fulfilment comes from embracing the gender-identity of the body that you were born to and God’s plan that a man and a woman should unite and found a new life-bearing family. A broad agenda of advancing and normalising LGBT+ rights is clear in both the Lib Dem manifesto (15 mentions) and in Labour’s (16). There are only two nods in the Conservative document, a bland affirmation of the importance of combating ‘harassment and violence against all religious groups, and against LGBT people’ and a note that the Tories organised a conference about LGBT issues in the developing world.

The Value of a British Vote

Not all votes in Britain are equal. Some constituencies are marginals, where every vote counts in a two-way or three-way contest, and you have a significant chance of influencing which party or parties will form the next Government. Others are ‘safe seats’ where the large majority of the sitting MP makes it overwhelmingly unlikely that any other party’s candidate can win. Theoretically, of course, any candidate can win any seat; but when we weigh up the moral responsibility of casting a vote, we must take account of the likely outcome of my actions combined with that of people over whom I have no control. Since all political parties package together a wide range of policies, any choice we make, any signal we send, is a mixed bag bundling things we don’t like with things we do.

Catholics cannot in good conscience, choose to promote and broaden access to abortion.

Catholics cannot in good conscience, choose to promote the use of nuclear weapons.

But a vote for an MP is not a referendum on either of these issues. Catholics are not forbidden from choosing a package of morally good measures which also includes abortion as part of the package. And realistically, what Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering has more symbolic value than practical influence, given the wide access to abortion already available through doctors.

Voting for a party which has no realistic chance of winning in your seat sends a signal. The overall national level of support for a party influences how much airtime it gets on the media, and gives some weight to the party leader in negotiations where cross-party support is needed. It may also influence whether the sitting party moves towards or away from the centre ground in a future manifesto.

Although the Conservative Manifesto doesn’t mention abortion, it’s unlikely that a Johnson Government would act to restrict access to abortion or revoke current LGBT legislation. So while voting for a Labour or Liberal Democrat candidate is technically an act of co-operation with an evil promise in a manifesto, it is an act which will have very little practical consequence should either party gain power. And voting for these parties in a safe Tory seat will not send a strong ‘pro-abortion’ signal because that’s not what differentiates these parties from the Tories in practice.

Awkwardly, the two parties which explicitly mention abortion and clearly have a large pro-LGBT+ agenda are also the parties in England which lean towards nuclear disarmament talks. In the current climate, the strongest interpretation of voting for a party will be around its stance on Brexit, but the multiple mentions of LGBT in both manifestos also give this prominence.

Brexit itself is not an issue on which there is a clear Catholic stance. There are Catholic values which would support Remain when it comes to maximum co-operation and support for poorer neighbour nations, but also teaching on subsidiarity which might lean towards Leave. Somehow Catholics must seek to respect the democratic will expressed by the British people in the Brexit referendum while seeking to bring some kind of unity to a deeply divided nation. Not easy.

The Catholic Dilemma

It’s very difficult to give an ‘absolute recommendation’ for something as complex as choosing a candidate or deciding whether to vote. If ALL the available candidates are anti-life then whether you vote or not, an anti-life candidate will get in. In this case the system is not offering you an option to vote for pro-life principles. It is offering you an option to choose between other values which are also important, and which impact on the rights and well-being of precious human lives who have already been allowed to be born.

Remember that God holds us responsible not only for our actions but also for our deliberate inactions (‘I was in prison and you didn’t visit me!’). I would absolutely understand and respect a person who says ‘I can’t vote for any party this time because they all represent co-operation with an anti-life mentality’ – especially when that is because of the explicit mention of abortion in the Labour and Liberal Democrat Manifestos. But know that choosing not to vote will not result in pro-life decisions being made by politicians. It only gives away your small opportunity to influence the other decisions which politicians will make.

If you choose not to vote you are putting a little more power into the hands of those who don’t share your principles, people who will cast their ballot. If this means, ultimately, that you do choose to vote, and your action contributes to a candidate with an anti-life viewpoint or manifesto being elected in your constituency, after the election you would do well to write a letter to your new MP. You should make it clear that you voted for them despite, not because, of their support for abortion, or LGBT issues, or the renewal of Trident, since there was no workable alternative on offer, and stress the good values you wanted to embrace by choosing to vote for them.

We cannot choose evil that good may come of it. We can only choose what is good and accept the consequences. We must never directly co-operate with abortion or with nuclear annihilation, but casting a vote is doubly indirect, first because we are choosing a package, and secondly because the ultimate outcome is determined by 649 other MPs over whom we have no control and a media over whom we have little influence. It seems to me that the consequences of voting Labour or Liberal Democrat are such that a Catholic voter is not morally forbidden from doing so, but the voter would need to be clear about the social goods which they are choosing by doing so. Equally, a Catholic voting for the Conservative party would need to have reservations about the renewal of Trident with no suggestion of seeking multilateral disarmament talks, and a sense that the Tories represent a good practical outcome for the poorest members of British society.

Whatever you do, take time to pray before you vote – or make a meaningful decision not to vote – and be sure that whatever decision you make, it gives you peace before God. Peace be with you.

Choose Wisely!

Homily at the Erskine Catholic Parishes, for the conclusion of the Sion Community MissionSolemnity of Christ the King, Year C.

David for King!

Our first reading is strangely appropriate today. Israel is looking for a leader, and although kings normally gain their crowns by royal birth, in this case the people are choosing a new king. And it sounds like they are asking three questions.

  • Is he one of us?
  • Is he successful?
  • Is he God’s choice?

The first question is the politics of identity. We rush to put labels on people so we can decide if someone is one of them or one of us. Rangers or Celtic? British, European or Scottish? Leave or Remain? Remember the Golden Rule – always treat Them the way you would like Them to treat Us – especially if you think they don’t deserve it!

The second question is about competence. Who will do a good job? Who do you trust? David was good at leading soldiers in battle… did that qualify him to lead a nation in peacetime? And what does a good job look like, anyway? Is it about keeping the ship steady or setting a new course? Most politicians fall from power when they get one big thing wrong – when Prime Minister Macmillan was asked about the greatest challenge for a statesman, he famously replied: “Events!”* How far do we believe in forgiveness and allowing someone to learn from their mistakes?

The third question is about values. This goes to the heart of modern politics. Over the last 50 years, Western democracies have thrown away Bible values in favour of “Do what you like as long as you don’t get in the way of someone else.” The State no longer supports our sense that there are certain things good people shouldn’t do. Worse, if we dare to ask our politicians to reflect these values, we may be accused of being illiberal and bigoted.

It might have come to your attention that there’s a General Election next month. Strangely enough, it was reported this week that the most common first name for candidates in this election is David!

It’s not the job of our church leaders to point you towards or away from particular parties or politicians, but it is their job to remind us of the questions we should ask before choosing which candidate deserves our vote. The Bishops of Scotland have issued a letter which you can take home and read this weekend. I’m not going to read the whole text here, but I can summarise the questions they suggest we ask of each candidate before we vote:

  • Will you respect that human life has a dignity not because it is wanted by someone, but because it is human?
  • Will you support married couples, and families with children, in decisions about taxes and benefits?
  • Will you provide fair support for poor people at home and abroad, and take account of the consequences of our actions for Earth’s climate?
  • Will you seek to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and restrict the sale of small arms to countries where they contribute to instability?
  • Will you respect the consciences of those who stand out because of their religious or philosophical beliefs, and tackle religious persecution around the world?

Today is not only the eve of a General Election; it’s also the close of our Parish Mission. For the last week, Sion Community has been working among you, reflecting and praying about what it means to be a parish moving from Maintenance to Mission. But we should look carefully at that word, “maintenance”. We can maintain something in working order, but most things decay over time – vintage cars can’t be used for an everyday commute. And if “maintenance” means keeping things running as they are, we have to face up to an embarrassing truth: what the Catholic Church is really good at across the UK is losing old people slowly and young people quickly. In fact, if we carrying on losing people at the same rate we’re only a few decades away from total collapse!

In my conversations with your parish leaders, I’ve seen the beginnings of an idea emerge. It’s the idea of a parish which is attractive to young parents with small children. So today, I’d like to encourage you to dare to dream. What if you changed the way you did things on the weekend to be as attractive as possible to these missing Catholics?

I know none of us like change. We’re probably really tired of elections right now, too. And casting a vote usually means choosing a package which combines some ideas we really like with others we’d rather not pick. In the same way, if we succeed in inviting lots of young families to be part of our weekend worship, we’ll be blending something we like – a growing parish, hooray! – with changes we might not like – different music, more noise, more unfamiliar faces.

Two sinners were nailed to crosses either side of Our Lord. One was only thinking about himself – he cries out to Jesus, “Use your power to get us out of this mess!” But that’s not the Lord’s way. Jesus does not seek to dominate, but to reconcile. The other sinner understands that on the other side of the pain, there will be glory. First, he needs to die to himself – he must accept that the way forward will be painful. Then, and only then, Jesus will bring him into the Kingdom of Light.

As he was being crucified, Jesus was the victim of negative campaigning. He was labelled as the powerless King of the Jews, mocked for his inability to get down from the Cross. None of us like negative campaigning when politicians spend more time attacking their rivals than explaining their own good ideas. So in our turn, let’s pledge not to be negative campaigners for the future of this parish. When a change we don’t like comes along, let’s look for the good reasons behind that change and say “I don’t like it, but I understand why we need to do that.” I estimate that you have about ten years to turn things around. You have been blessed with capable leaders willing to ask how to do things differently.

David for King! You have your own David in this parish, and he has gathered a good leadership team around him. Now the trouble with leaders is that there are only two kinds – the sort who don’t make changes, and the sort who make changes you don’t like. So I say to you: remember the words of St John Henry Newman, who said “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Remember the words of Christ: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Change, and believe the good news!” Trust in your David and his generals, to lead you in changes for the better, and when you can’t see the good in a change, give them the benefit of the doubt. Accept change, and slowly, this parish will begin to grow. Resist change, and it will stay as it is right now – not fixed, but gently declining. The choice is yours.

An election only happens once every few years, God willing. But at in this parish community, you have an opportunity to vote every time you open your mouth, every time you work with your hands, every time you type with your fingers. Each one of you has very little power over the future of the UK and over the future of Scotland. But each one of you has a tremendous influence over the future of this parish. Choose wisely!

* Not “Events, my dear boy, events!” as commonly misquoted, but more fully, “The opposition of events!”

Go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God

Homily at St Bernadette’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission – Saturday Mass of St Columbanus (Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 9:57-62)

“Your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”

What Jesus Christ said to that man in the Gospels, he has said to his followers through the ages, and he says to us today.

We might be distracted by the stark rejection of the complaint that someone must bury his father! Surely it’s a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead?

The thing is, the man’s father was most likely alive and well. I don’t think Our Lord was suggesting someone should walk away from a family funeral to start being a full-time missionary. Rather, I see a man making excuses: ‘I have family duties right now; when my Dad’s dead I might be able to help.’ But Jesus often spoke of the need to place honour for our Heavenly Father ahead of any good respect for our earthly parents.

The Catholic Church has lived through different shades of opinion on how urgent it is to share the Gospel. At one extreme our ranks have included preachers with the fiery message that anyone who doesn’t become a Catholic before they die will be damned to Hell for all eternity – a message so unpalatable that even the Vatican has acted to rein in such opinions. This simply doesn’t fit with what Scripture says about ‘good pagans’ who don’t know about Jesus being saved by following their conscience. On the other extreme, in recent years we’ve been seduced by a comfortable but false idea that God is a nice, loving, nanny who will simply scoop up all his naughty children into heaven with a smile whatever we do on earth. That’s not true either – Jesus made it crystal clear that Hell is a very real possibility for those who cause ‘little children’ to stumble or who let their hands, feet or eyes wander to places they shouldn’t.

The Catholic Church often proclaims that particular people have become saints in heaven, but we’ve never made a definitive statement that a person has been condemned to Hell. What we can offer is a sure and certain path which will lead people to eternal life. Anyone who puts God at the centre of their life by attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days – health permitting – and who strives to live out the moral values of the Catholic Church, making a sincere confession whenever they stumble, is guaranteed to end up in heaven. Now a soul might need to spend some time being purified in Purgatory first – but what matters most is the final destination.

We’re all going to die. That’s bad news.

Jesus proved there was life after death. That’s good news!

There is a possibility that souls can enter Hell and experience eternal punishment. That’s bad news.

But by following the teachings of Jesus given to us through the Catholic Church, we can be sure of reaching heaven. That’s Good News!

When we reach the gates of heaven, Jesus will look at each one of us, and say, “Why should I let you in?”

Don’t try saying ‘because I’m a good person’. That’s OK for pagans but it doesn’t work for Christians. We know what the right answer is: ‘Jesus, I know don’t deserve to come in, but I’m sorry for all my sins, which I’ve confessed and I trust you will let me in anyway.’ For that answer we not only get into heaven, we receive a rich reward for the good we’ve done on earth.

We can let the scholars debate the fine details of how and why people get into Heaven. Our Lord cut through all that by leaving us a simple instruction: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’

St Paul travelled around the Mediterranean three times to do just that.

St Patrick and his generation established the Catholic faith to Ireland, and St Columba brought it, through Iona, to Scotland.

St Columbanus, whom the Church celebrates today, was an Irish monk whose mission was to people in the north of France and Italy.

In the 19th Century, many Christian missionaries from Scotland took the message of Jesus to India, China, the West Indies, and parts of Africa. Among them were two prominent Catholics, Agnes McLaren, a doctor in India, and Duncan McNab, who worked with Australian Aborigines. 

But there’s no need to go to distant parts of the world to fulfil what Christ asks of us. There are many people in Erskine who are not yet followers of Jesus – even among those who might call themselves Catholic. You’ve made a great start in this parish, using Alpha as a tool to spread the news of Jesus. Your challenge now is to find the right way to share Jesus – using Alpha and your personal conversations – with people who don’t come to Mass, people who may have no real Christian faith at all.

It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Maybe you have fields or jobs to tend to. Maybe you have fathers, or mothers, or children, who need looking after. God doesn’t want us to neglect our duties to our families, but neither does he want us to use that as an excuse for not doing something uncomfortable. And even with Alpha, there’s a danger it becomes a closed circle for insiders, when it is meant to be a way of spreading the message of Jesus to outsiders.

Remember the wise words of Archbishop William Temple, who said:

“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

And remember the even wiser words of Jesus Christ, who said:

“Your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”

Fear Not, Rejoice and Be Glad

Homily at St John Bosco’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission– Friday evening Celebration based on Acts 2:1-11 and Luke 11:9-13.

When the day of Pentecost came, Our Blessed Lady and the Apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. It appeared that tongues of fire rested upon each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak. A great crowd gathered, for Jews from many nations were gathered in Jerusalem for a festival. And yet each heard the Apostles speaking in their own native language!

On the Day of Pentecost, we see ordinary people empowered to do extraordinary things. What could be more ordinary than a fisherman, a tax collector, or a wife and mother?

Many times, Jesus had said to his friends and followers, “Do not be afraid!” Together, Our Lady and the Apostles had endured the agony of Good Friday and the ecstasy of meeting the Risen Lord mere days later. Ten days past, Jesus had ascended from their sight, telling them not to leave Jerusalem until the promised Spirit had come upon them. I wonder how they felt? Alongside the amazing news that Jesus had triumphed over death lay the knowledge that the same Romans and Jews who had crucified Christ might also seek the destruction of His followers. But the power which filled them on that Day of Pentecost impelled them into the public square, where St Peter addressed a vast crowd, and three thousand listeners were baptised and added to their number.

What about us? Could we do what St Peter did? Could we do what Our Blessed Lady did? Or are we bound up with fear? And which frightens us more – the thought of doing God’s work in the presence of scoffers, or the thought that God might trust us enough to call us and work wonders through us in the first place?

In August, 1993, three years after becoming a Catholic, I attended a summer youth retreat. I had one year left before I finished my degree, and I had to start thinking about what to do next. Of course, there were lots of options open to an Oxford physics graduate!

I was young.

I was male.

I was single.

I was Catholic.


What about the priesthood?



Definitely not!

The thing is, although I knew I was saying no, I didn’t know WHY I was saying no. What was I afraid of?

I think, looking back, I was afraid that Jesus was going to ask me to do something I probably wouldn’t like. I’d have to do it, because he was God. And once I said yes, I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life.

During that retreat, one of the speakers invited us to take a silent hour in the afternoon, so I found myself a secluded spot on a riverbank and began to ponder.

I believed that Jesus, as God, was the smartest being in existence.

I believed that Jesus, as God, was the most loving being in existence, and couldn’t possibly want anything for me that would be bad for me.

I called Jesus, “Lord”. If I really meant that he was my Lord, that would mean I was saying I wanted him to be the person in charge of my life.

So… if Jesus is smarter than me, if Jesus will never choose anything which is not in my best interests, and if the Bible encourages me to call Jesus, “Lord”, I was faced with only one inexorable, inescapable, and incontrovertible conclusion: YES to everything.

So I prayed. And my prayer went something like this: “Jesus, I believe you are who the Bible says you are. I believe you love me and have my best interests at heart. From today onwards I will go where you ask me to go, do what you ask me to do. Whatever you ask – if you make it clear what you want, I will do it – even if it is the “priest thing”.

Well, back then it wasn’t the “priest thing”. I ended up in working in Nottingham on a gap year and then at Cardiff University for my PhD. But in 1997, the Lord showed me that it was time for the “priest thing” and here I am today.

Yes, 1993 was a key year in my life. Two things happened which changed the course of my life. I’ve just told you about the second one, when I said yes to Jesus and yes to priesthood. But four months earlier, actually during a visit to Scotland, I said “Yes” to the Holy Spirit.

On Monday I shared with you the story of how I become a Catholic. I read my way into the Catholic faith… and I spent time reading about other kinds of Christians too. I read about how the Pentecostal Churches started at the beginning of the 20th Century. I read about how large numbers of Catholics started experiencing similar things in the late 1960s – praying in tongues; laying hands on people who then experienced healing; and receiving prophetic words, knowledge that seemed to come from God and blessed the people who heard it. And of course, I read the Bible itself which showed us that prophecies and healings and praying in strange tongues were quite normal for St Peter, and for the early apostles and church leaders.

Now it’s one thing to encounter these things in books – quite another in real life. At Oxford, there was a student in my college who became a good friend. Sometimes we prayed together, and she made strange noises. So one day I asked her, “Cathy, those sounds you make when you’re praying – is that what they call praying in tongues?” She said it was. A few weeks later I asked her to lay her hands on me and pray for me to receive the same gift, so she came to me and prayed – and… nothing happened.

Well, almost nothing. I did have a sense of God whispering to my heart “Yes, but not yet.” A few weeks later, I was in Edinburgh for a science conference, and I popped into a local Catholic bookshop, Harkins of the Mound, where I spotted a book I’d been seeking for ages. This book, a volume on prayer by a Jesuit priest, had one chapter which spoke to me powerfully. It set out what you should do if your prayer life felt blocked, if it was dominated by just one big thing.

That was exactly where I was that Spring. I’d fallen in love for the first time in my young life, but not only did the woman in question turn out to be dating someone else, but even worse, she was on the brink of abandoning her Catholic faith! For weeks my only prayer had been: “Lord, if I can’t marry her, at least give her her faith back!”

Guided by the prayerbook, I knelt down that evening and handed over my burden to God. “Lord, I realise that I am holding on to this person, and it’s not right that she is the only person I pray for. So I am going to put her in your hands now. She’s your responsibility, not mine.”

The very moment I finished the prayer, I felt unbidden sounds arising on my lips, and I prayed in tongues for the first time. Later, Cathy took me to a large prayer meeting with more than 100 Catholics praying that way. I’m sharing this so you know that even if you’ve never come across it yourself, there are lots of Catholics out there for whom praying in tongues is an ordinary thing. Even the newly appointed Catholic Archbishop of Southwark had admitted that he prays that way – and an even more famous Christian who says he prays in tongues is Justin Welby, the current Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury!

There are many gifts much more important than tongues, of course. St Paul says the greatest gift the Holy Spirit can give us is prophecy, the ability to know what God wants to say to a person. Sometimes that’s a word of encouragement which touches a person’s deepest needs at that moment. Other times it’s a word of information, something the person speaking couldn’t have known by natural means, as proof that it really is God who is speaking and wanting to bless the listener.

A few months ago, one of the members of Sion Community asked me to pray with her, to receive the gift of prophecy. I gladly did that, but then I did something she wasn’t expecting. “Ask God to show you something to share with me, right now!” So she stopped, and prayed, and an image came to her mind, which was the exact same thing I’d asked someone else in the Community to pray about for me just ten minutes earlier! The Holy Spirit loves to bring us gifts, but often waits to be asked.

The Holy Spirit also brings us the gifts which our young people learn about for Confirmation: Courage and Wisdom, Knowledge and Endurance, Good Advice, Piety and Fear of the Lord. Now ‘fear of the Lord’ doesn’t mean quaking in our boots being afraid that God will punish us if we don’t do His bidding. Rather, it means a healthy respect for who God is and a willingness to obey his will.

If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to lift our hands in the air and sing his praises.

If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to lay our hands on one another and pray for healing of our ills and a deeper experience of God’s power.

If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to use our lips for whatever sounds God may place on them, be that prayers in unknown tongues or words of affirmation in human language.

In our broken humanity, we do fear the unknown. This is why Jesus reassured us that our Heavenly Father will only give us good things, and the best gift of all is the Holy Spirit.

I shared with you on Wednesday, how my old headmaster would address me solemnly and declare that he was expecting Great Things of me! Our Lord was even more challenging to his followers. In John 14 we read that Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father!” Jesus then promised to send the Holy Spirit as our Helper.

I’ve been watching a new medical drama recently, called New Amsterdam. A dynamic doctor has been appointed as the Medical Director of a busy public hospital, but instead of spending most of the time in the boardroom, he puts on his scrubs and spends as much time as possible treating patients. His catchphrase, whenever he walks on to a ward, is “How can I help?” And his name? He is Dr Max Goodwin! He certainly seeks the maximum number of good outcomes for his patients! But he can’t do it all himself. By the end of the series he has inspired his colleagues to be like him. They are no longer constrained by the way the hospital used to run. If there’s a better way to do things, they can do it. We know he’s had an impact when his colleagues start asking, in their turn, “How can I help?”

God loves to be asked to help. In the Gospel we heard this evening, Jesus said: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit, he said that we should eagerly desire the gift of prophesy – and what would we do if we desired it, if not to ask the Giver of all Good Gifts to grant it to us?

In our prayer this evening, we will have an opportunity to ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit’s gifts upon us. On the table at the front, we’ve laid out some of the gifts you might ask for – gifts of character to embolden us to do God’s work, and spiritual gifts which only God can grant to make us His helpers on earth. So you’ll be able to come and look at the gifts on offer, and see which one or two are your heart’s desire this evening. I can’t promise that you will receive the gift you most desire, because these are gifts, freely given by God as God pleases. But I do know that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

You might need to deal with fears and blockages first. If you are afraid of what God might ask, just ask yourself, as I did, if you can trust God and if God doesn’t have your best interests at heart. If there is some obstacle in your life, some hurt or anxiety getting in the way, give it to Jesus – he wants to carry your burden upon his Cross. But remember the Mission Prayer you have been praying to prepare for this week. Open your lives to joy. Open your arms to your brothers and sisters. Open your hearts to the Holy Spirit, for tonight, there is nowhere he would rather be.

So come! Come and select one or two gifts which stir your heart this night. And bring your gift token forward to the brother and sister who will stand at the front to pray with you, asking the Holy Spirit to grant what you ask. Fear not, rejoice, and be glad, for it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom and fill you with his Holy Spirit!

The House of Worship

Homily at St Bernadette’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission– readings for Friday of the 33rd Week of Year 1.

That day in Jerusalem, Our Lord Jesus asked whether the Temple was being honoured as a House of Prayer. But today, in Erskine, I ask you whether this church is a house of WORSHIP?

Worship isn’t quite the same thing as praying.

When we hear the word “praying” we usually think about praying “for” something – asking God for help. In fact, the very word “pray” comes from Old French and Latin words meaning “to ask”.

It’s good to ask God for help. But “worship” means something bigger than that. Worship comes from an Old English word meaning “you are worthy”!

As a priest, I get lots of thank-yous but very few personal compliments. When I’ve conducted a wedding or funeral, I quite often get a nice thank-you card; and a “thank-you” is about the things I’ve done to help other people. But a compliment is different. It’s someone commenting about who I am.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting a close friend, who suddenly said – “if you lost a bit of weight, you’d be quite handsome”. Well, she was right! At least about the first part! Or when I was still training to be a priest, I did some work in a school in South Wales, and one of the pupils thanked me for something and then said “You’re very good at what you do, sir!” I was floating for the next six months on the simple honesty that only a small child can give!

Now, this sermon is not about me, and please don’t think I’m fishing for compliments! But I’m sharing these stories because when someone says something personal like that, it creates a powerful and positive memory – something you’ll remember for years afterwards. So don’t miss out on the opportunity to give someone you love a personal compliment.

But why should we worship God? God is love. God is perfect. God doesn’t need us to pay him compliments to make him happy.

One reason is that God deserves it. God is worthy! If we pay compliments to people we see good in, how much more should we give praise to God! This is why it’s written into the Mass that when the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” we all reply. “It is right and just!”

Another is that God commands it. The first great commandment that Jesus Christ gave us is to “love God with all your heart and soul and might and strength”. One way we express this is by singing – and today is St Cecilia’s Day, when we celebrate the patron saint of music. I know that the music group in this parish has been introducing new kinds of songs in this parish; maybe you’ve noticed the difference between the old familIar songs that sing about me (‘Here I am, Lord!’) and what we call ‘worship songs’ that focus on God (‘Bless the Lord, O My Soul!’).

Why else should we worship? It’s good for us! The famous prayer of St Francis notes that “in giving, we receive”. If we are the kind of people who choose to give praise to God, we will become shaped more like holy people, and be more receptive to the special help, called grace, that God wants to offer to us.

Yet another reason (don’t worry, I’m not going to give you 10,000 reasons!) might be that, if we choose to stop worshipping, we sense we are missing out on something. I remember that when I was about nine years old, I decided to stop going to Sunday School – my parents didn’t insist that I went. But after three weeks I had such an uncomfortable sense that I was missing out on something, I asked to start going again!

Worship comes naturally when we’ve fallen in love with God. This is why the Jews gathered by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers gathered in their thousands at the Temple in Jerusalem, rising at the crack of down and bowing low in worship. Yes, it was also a celebration of their hard-won freedom, and they showed their joy by playing raucous musical instruments! But they longed to obey God’s law once again and offer sacrifices in the Temple.

If St John Bosco’s or St Bernadette’s is your church, you will treat it as you please and you will work to keep it just the way you like it.

But if a building is God’s Church, you will ask what should happen there to serve God’s purposes. You might change the way you use the building. You might change the kind of music you sing there. You might even ask if it’s the right place, at the right time, to serve what God is asking you to do in Erskine right now. And to ask a question which puts God, and God’s work, at the centre, would be a great act of worship indeed!

Hammer Away for Our Faith!

Homily at St John Bosco’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission – readings for Thursday of the 33rd Week of Year 1.

A senior advocate was training a new pupil on what to do in the courtroom. “When you have the law on your side, hammer away with the law. When you have the facts on your side, hammer away with the facts.”

“Yes,” said the student, “but what should I do if neither the facts nor the law are on my side?”

“Then,” said the advocate, “Hammer away on the table!”

Friends, being a Catholic in Britain at this time means that the law is not always on our side, even though the facts are.

The fact is, a pregnant woman gives birth to a human baby. That baby doesn’t start being human at some point in its development; it is human from the first moment of its being. The law gives some grudging respect to this by allowing doctors and midwives to refuse to perform abortions; but here in Scotland, two midwives who didn’t want to supervise their junior colleagues giving abortions lost their jobs, and the law said that was fair.

The fact is – indeed, we call this one of the facts of life – that a healthy man and a healthy woman can produce a baby and start their own family. Today, modern medicine has made it possible to change who we are. If you don’t feel right about the body you were born with, you can ask for surgery and medication to make your body appear like the opposite sex. And if you want to contribute to making or carrying a baby without doing it the way nature has provided for millions of years, medicine can find a way of doing that too. The law now says that what you want is more important than what you are.

In our first reading, we see what happens when the state gets involved in religious worship. “Don’t make your traditional Jewish sacrifices! Instead do what we tell you!” It was a way the Macedonian empire tried to assert control over the Jewish people. Mattathias is having none of it, and reacts violently! In fact, this led to a revolution, and rallied Jewish freedom fighters to a successful series of battles – but we’ll learn the outcome of that tomorrow.

As Catholics, taught by gentle Jesus, we must walk a fine line here. We must stand up for what we believe without being oppressive towards others – and that hasn’t always been the case in the past when state law was tied closely to Christian values. Of course it is wrong for anyone who is exploring their own sexual orientation or gender identity to be denied a fair chance to apply for a job or access a public service. No-one should be treated with hostility, even when we fundamentally disagree with their lifestyles. It becomes even more complicated when that person is a member of your own family, when you are trying to support someone you care about without blessing decisions that you disagree with. But at the same time we must not compromise on our own God-given values. Jesus didn’t say much about these matters, but when he did speak, he said that God had set out His will clearly in the Bible: a man shall join with his wife and the two shall become one in a blessed and unbreakable bond.

The Scottish bishops are concerned that society is out of balance, and that political debate today has a very divisive tone. They have written a letter for churches this weekend where they note that some voices are trying to push religion out of public life. This touches on questions that affect us, such as whether the Catholic Church should still run schools in Scotland and have a voice on the committees that manage them. It also touches members of other religions – Sikh and Jewish men are required to cover their heads, and many Muslim women believe their religion’s duty to dress modestly requires them to use some kind of veil.

The facts are on our side. The facts of biology tell us that there’s a difference between what our bodies are and what some people aspire to. The facts of history tell us that some religions make clear demands on their members to present themselves differently in public – even we, as Catholics, observe certain days when we fast and abstain from meat in public as well as in private. Whether the law is on our side is a question for our politicians who make the law. With a General Election only weeks away, it’s quite possible you’ll come into contact with a politician before Christmas. If you do, please ask them whether they support laws which protect religious believers in public.

Shouldn’t a Muslim midwife be allowed to avoid abortion even to the extent of not helping colleagues to provide it? Shouldn’t Catholic pharmacists be protected by law if they don’t want to give out the Morning After Pill? Of course there’s a balance to be struck. Should a nurse be allowed to talk to patients about religion, beyond asking whether they follow a faith and want to see a chaplain? No. But should that same nurse be allowed to wear a crucifix or some discrete yet visible symbol of her or his own faith? Yes, of course!

Some religions require people to wear a public sign, so any law that says ‘hide that’ discriminates against those religions. And if we are really serious about saying Britain is a tolerant society where religious viewpoints as well as sexual identity should be respected, and indeed, celebrated, we should be rejoicing that we have religious believers who don’t want to be involved in abortion, contraception, or the nuclear arms trade, and we should make a point of allowing reasonable adjustments to accommodate this in the workplace. It’s become very fashionable for politicians to express their ‘pride’ in supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Shouldn’t we be proud that Britain has religious believers who want to stand out rather than fit in? The facts are on our side; the law is in the balance. So when you get the chance to speak to a lawmaker, feel free to hammer away – but use a gentle hammer!

This Dark Material

When I first read Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, I loved it – and I hated it! But who could fail to be intrigued by a work which begins:

Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall…

I loved it because it combined three things I held dear: Oxford, physics, and the Church. I became a Catholic in 1990, and the following year, went up to Keble College, Oxford, to read physics. When Pullman’s first volume was published in July 1995, I was 21, had just completed a gap year as a Catholic Chaplaincy assistant, and was about to begin a PhD in astrophysics. The concluding volume was published soon after I entered seminary.

I hated it, because it represented an inversion, if not a perversion, of everything I understood to be upright. In Pullman’s world, witches were good but God was malicious. The Church, portrayed as the ‘Magisterium’, combined the very worst elements of Catholicism at the height of the Inquisition and the most fun-destroying form of Calvinist Protestantism. Human souls were given a generic name which in other contexts would have indicated irredeemable evil – even with that winsome dipthong hinting that dæmons were not demons. The alethiometer (or ‘golden compass’) is a truth telling device (hooray! score one for absolute truth in an age of relativism!) but its manner of use smacks of divination.

A previous attempt to portray Pullman’s work on screen resulted in a single film which bombed at the box office and contributed to the financial collapse of the production company. Now, with great fanfare, the BBC and America’s HBO have combined to bring Pullman’s trilogy to the small screen. In the opening episode, last night, we are drawn into a double mystery: the quest to find missing children, abducted by the Gobblers in Oxford, and the mystery of Dust – a substance which surrounds adults but not children, which reveals a hidden city beyond the aurora borealis, and investigation of which the Magisterium regards as the most dangerous kind of heresy. The trailer for next week’s episode hints that to experiment with Dust is to ‘flood us all with sin’.

It will be interesting to see how this new adaptation blends the very human story of a manipulative child-snatching conspiracy with the metaphysical narrative of Dust – the screenwriter has said that the 8 pm slot restricts the angles they can show, but not the story they want to tell.

Dust is at the heart of Pullman’s narrative – is it something to be feared or embraced? In Lyra’s universe, the Bible tells of how Dust comes into the world when Eve tastes the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Pullman comments:

Knowing about good and evil is not the same as embracing evil, though it might look like that to a church that likes to think it has all the answers.

Just two years before Pullman’s first volume was published, Pope John Paul II issued Veritatis Splendor, with its own take on Genesis and the story of the Fall. Of the tree of knowledge, the Pope notes (pararaph 35):

With this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. 

A generation on from the publication of these texts, these are still live issues. At the heart of the debate is the core Christian value of love… and since God is love, what could be more central? If love is understood primarily as erotic attraction, then it must be truly godly than to pursue every attraction, even if that breaks an existing relationship, leads to a person of the same sex, or draws you in to a polyamorous ménage-à-many. But if love is agapé, a self-sacrificing commitment to the good of the Other, then knowledge of objective good is essential to true love.

Ultimately the question is where our values of good and evil come from: are we free to choose our own values (as long as we don’t inflict avoidable harm anyone else) or is there an objective Good which comes from beyond ourselves and which we must accept or reject? Far from seeking to repress knowledge, the Catholic Church promoted by St John Paul II has claimed to propagate knowledge of what is truly Good, guided by the Holy Spirit. His Dark Materials is fundamentally a coming-of-age drama; but didn’t Jesus encourage his followers to be childlike while warning that the children of this earthly world were more ‘astute’ than the naïve, but ultimately Godly, children of light?

It’s no spoiler to say that Lyra is prophesied to commit some huge act of ‘betrayal’. Will she betray another person? Will she betray her own externalised soul? At a time when the charge of ‘traitor’ is commonly addressed to politicians who seemingly frustrate the ‘will of the people’ (or are they simply seeking ways to carry out the will of the people while limiting collateral damage?) it will be interesting to see how this narrative plays out over the next seven weeks, and what the metaphysical message will be. This priest, and his guardian angel, will be watching what happens, reflecting on its meaning in the light of the Gospel!