Tag Archive: Culture


bbcradio4Today we were very lucky to host the Radio 4 Sunday Service here in the Holy Name Manchester .  It has a UK audience of 2.5 million, and  is streamed live all over Europe, as well as being available to listen again for 7 days on the BBC Website.  On the internet it is a global audience.   Because it is live – the timings are very tight – so a couple of times my homily was shortened (I bet the students wish that a Radio 4 producer came to all our masses !)  Here is the original homily I gave on the difference between optimism and hope. 

The wonderful Choir rehearsing for the Radio 4 Broadcast

The wonderful Choir rehearsing for the Radio 4 Broadcast

There is a profound difference between optimism and hope. Today is about hope – the feast of Christ the Universal King – He is the reason for our hope.  Being around so many students here in Manchester fills me with optimism – their energy, their idealism, their passion.  But optimism can be fragile – we can easily get sucked down into swamps of cynicism, or wallow in a culture that delights in mocking.  We have just heard how they mocked Jesus on the cross ‘  If you are the King of the Jews save yourself’  Jesus is not the king of one ethnic group he is the universal King – In the midst of his suffering even the good thief senses this and rebukes them from his own cross – ‘Have you no fear of God?  – and his reward is the promise of Jesus the King of Heaven  – ‘ Today you will be with me in paradise’.  Can you imagine how the good thief’s heart soared with Hope on hearing this unexpected promise? Hope is deeply rooted, Hope is more resilient than optimism, it doesn’t snap in the face of storms, nor does it wither away amidst hostility.   Christian Hope is anchored in two places – firstly our belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, so we can hope in the face of inevitable death, we can even hope in the face of disaster.  And secondly today we anticipate what the Catholic writer J.R.R Tolkien calls the ‘Return of the King’.  That we look forward to Christ the King returning to bring about a new era of justice and peace for all people.  When it seems that there is too much suffering and evil is flourishing, leaders are getting away with oppressing and killing their own people – belief in the return of Jesus is not just wishful thinking, delusional – but is a wellspring of hope.

As a university chaplain I see the potency of that hope every day.  Here in Manchester, our chaplaincy family consist of students from all over the world. They come from so many different situations, and what unites them is their faith, sometimes in the face of terrible persecution. Last week a young man from Pakistan told me how his family home was burnt down 6 months ago in anti-Christian Riots, students from Nigeria tell me with pride about the courage of their families who are going to church today even though there is a continual threat of bombing, the faith and devotion of a student from Syria, who is trying to help her family in Damascus is a constant inspiration.  These are intelligent, professional, scholars, many of them scientists who appear to have an unshakeable hope in their hearts.

Fr Williams Office turned into a live broadcast studio

Fr Williams Office turned into a live broadcast studio

A couple of years ago I was sent to the Philippines for my last year of training as a Jesuit.  Part of that experience was to live in the shanty towns in Manila for a few weeks.  The shanty town was very densely populated – with many people building houses on stilts out into Manila Bay.  When I arrived they were recovering from a very strong typhoon that had destroyed many houses. It was a remarkable experience, to briefly share the lives of these people.  Two things struck me – firstly how resilient they were.  They did not have much – so in the typhoon they had not lost much, and as we helped them rebuild their houses there was great joy and freedom.  Secondly how that resilience was rooted in faith and hope.  This is so evident in the recent disaster in the Philippines. It is has been remarkable seeing how extended families have pulled together, we have seen this these weeks in Cebu and Leyte, how families have travelled to the disaster areas to help feed and rebuild their loved ones. The communities that are present and able to immediately provide that hope are not the politicians but the churches.

Here in Britain we need communities of hope – our students here in Manchester have started the first student-run foodbank in the country.  It is needed because so many have lost the support of family – have no extended family they can turn.   But the student community here gives them hope, when they have to choose between heating their homes and eating – it is our foodbank that they can turn to which helps them through a short-term crisis, without creating dependency and also signposting them to other voluntary support groups.   And it is remarkable how much of this civil society is faith based.  They are communities of hope.

We are called to build communities of hope, the church is called to take risks and we can’t just do it from the safety of the internet. There is a fascinating book by Sherry Turkle, an MIT Professor, called Alone Together – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  So let us expect and give more to each other. Pope Francis is challenging us to get out of our digital bubbles, and also to stop hiding behind our ceremonies – and go out and spread our hope especially to the poor. He has said the Church that remains in the Sacristy gets sick.  We are being challenged to become a church that carries the hope that is rooted in our hearts to the edges and margins of society. Are we up to that challenge?


You can hear  the whole service by clicking on this link

Facebook & Status Anxiety


This is a scheduled blog – posted automatically – I’m on a silent retreat at the moment so will only be able to moderate or reply to comments when I finish (14th)

Thumbs down.It was reported last week that Facebook spreads unhappiness (examples here and here).  Research in Michigan, US,  suggested using the site makes people less satisfied with their lives. This resonates with other research that claims Facebook usage increases feelings of isolation, jealousy and depression. It is not clear whether this is a classic case of confusing correlation with causation… i.e. it is not facebook that causes isolation but rather those who feel isolated who are more likely to spend more time on facebook. However let’s remember the genesis of facebook, dreamed up in the dorms of Harvard, a high-pressure tank of adolescent insecurity, competitiveness and astronomical expectations. This was portrayed warts and all in the film The Social Network – and perhaps explains why  the architecture of Facebook Pages are often carefully designed to suggest a great and exciting life and therefore can be misleading.

status anxietyCould it be that Facebook is hyper-charging ‘status anxiety’. This idea came from a fascinating book of the same title by (atheist) philosopher Alain de Botton. Most unhappiness comes from this status anxiety and explains why the rich are often unhappier than those with much more modest lifestyles. Because we are always comparing ourselves to those who are one step above us on the wealth ladder. Rather than being satisfied with what we have, we become anxious because we don’t have as nice a car, as big a house etc as this or that friend. You can see how that works on facebook – X’s status updates/ photos indicate they are having a more exciting life than me. Look at his photo in a club surrounded by those beautiful girls whilst I am stuck at home (probably doing something much more interesting or fulfilling). Why has she got twice as many friends as me. So if you want to be happy – don’t fall into the trap of Facebook Status Anxiety!

By the way if you have read this through my facebook link and think it’s a bit hypocritical – my blog posts go onto facebook and twitter automatically. My policy with facebook is to ‘raid’ every week – get in and get out as quickly as I can – and do my business before I get sucked in…(honest) !!

Stay Fresh for Freshers Week


Greetings from Manchester!  We are in the middle of a hectic freshers week and it is impressive just to see the sheer volume of students arriving here in Manchester.  I count myself blessed to have inherited a very impressive core group of young men and women here at the chaplaincy who commitment and passion for the place is striking.  Freshers seem broadly to fall into two camps, at least at first glance, those who are arriving here from the immediate locality, or surrounding towns and cities, often accompanied by a cohort of friends from sixth form or other schools, and so have an immediate support group to rely on.  Then there are the many freshers who have come from far, often arriving on their own, excited and nervous.  I must admit, this group concerns me more, because they are more vulnerable.  There is a lot of pressure on them to make friends quickly and just a quick glance at the promotions and posters of Freshers Week events – there is a relentless mantra of alcohol, parties etc….. There is a certain peer pressure, with a new-found freedom that is being quite cynically exploited by bars, clubs and the booze industry.  As I said to the students at mass on Sunday night – be prudent, wise, carefully select your friends and don’t do anything that you’re not comfortable with.

I was wondering if I sound like a grumpy old priest, but this analysis was confirmed yesterday in three random conversations.  Firstly a young man came up from Azerbaijan came up to me looking for the Muslim chaplain, after a good chat as he was leaving he said, ‘Pray for me Father that I can stay true to my faith this week.’  I assured him I would, and was very impressed by his words.  A little later I was on the phone to a local printers getting a banner organised, I wanted to know if he could deliver it within 24 hours, and when he asked where I was, he tone changed suddenly and was delighted when I said Catholic Chaplaincy – he then confided to me his concerns about Freshers Week, and that they had considered a campaign which would say ‘Stay Fresh for Freshers Week’.  He wrapped up the conversation saying that we would get the banner for cost price – i.e. straight from the suppliers and they wouldn’t charge us!  His name – Omer and here’s a link to his company (clicky clicky).   Thirdly, later on in the day, I happened to be in the Church showing two students how to operate the disabled lift when two young architecture students came in.  They were saying how beautiful the church was, and told me it was a great space to come and sit amidst the hurly burly of Freshers Fairs etc.  The conversation went in the same direction as the previous ones – about their concerns etc.  And yes – they too were Muslims.  So these three random conversations with Muslim students and a Muslim businessman made me realise – maybe I am not a grumpy old priest after all !


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