Friday, 25 December 2015

A clarion call to the world at Christmas

I love this this homily by Pope Francis on Christmas Eve. It challenges us to heed the real significance of Christmas, often so drowned out by out by the rampant consumerism of modern society. Christmas should not simply be a time to indulge and be merry but also to reflect and thank God for sending Jesus, the Saviour of this world, to Bethlehem. Everything our modern society values seems to be in direct opposition to what Jesus stood for. Hence this homily from the Pope rings out as a clarion call to the world.

Here is the text of the homily, which Pope Francis made in St. Peter's Basilica on Christmas Eve:

"Tonight 'a great light' shines forth (Is 9:1); the light of Jesus' birth shines all about us. How true and timely are the words of the prophet Isaiah which we have just heard: 'You have brought abundant joy and great rejoicing' (9:2)! Our heart was already joyful in awaiting this moment; now that joy abounds and overflows, for the promise has been at last fulfilled. Joy and gladness are a sure sign that the message contained in the mystery of this night is truly from God. There is no room for doubt; let us leave that to the skeptics who, by looking to reason alone, never find the truth. There is no room for the indifference which reigns in the hearts of those unable to love for fear of losing something. All sadness has been banished, for the Child Jesus brings true comfort to every heart.

Today, the Son of God is born, and everything changes. The Savior of the world comes to partake of our human nature; no longer are we alone and forsaken. The Virgin offers us her Son as the beginning of a new life. The true light has come to illumine our lives so often beset by the darkness of sin. Today we once more discover who we are! Tonight we have been shown the way to reach the journey's end. Now must we put away all fear and dread, for the light shows us the path to Bethlehem. We must not be laggards; we are not permitted to stand idle. We must set out to see our Savior lying in a manger. This is the reason for our joy and gladness: this Child has been 'born to us'; he was 'given to us', as Isaiah proclaims (cf. 9:5). The people who for two thousand years has traversed all the pathways of the world in order to allow every man and woman to share in this joy is now given the mission of making known 'the Prince of peace' and becoming his effective servant in the midst of the nations.

So when we hear tell of the birth of Christ, let us be silent and let the Child speak. Let us take his words to heart in rapt contemplation of his face. If we take him in our arms and let ourselves be embraced by him, he will bring us unending peace of heart. This Child teaches us what is truly essential in our lives. He was born into the poverty of this world; there was no room in the inn for him and his family. He found shelter and support in a stable and was laid in a manger for animals. And yet, from this nothingness, the light of God's glory shines forth. From now on, the way of authentic liberation and perennial redemption is open to every man and woman who is simple of heart. This Child, whose face radiates the goodness, mercy and love of God the Father, trains us, his disciples, as Saint Paul says, 'to reject godless ways' and the richness of the world, in order to live 'temperately, justly and devoutly' (Tit 2:12).

In a society so often intoxicated by consumerism and hedonism, wealth and extravagance, appearances and narcissism, this Child calls us to act soberly, in other words, in a way that is simple, balanced, consistent, capable of seeing and doing what is essential. In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we need to cultivate a strong sense of justice, to discern and to do God's will. Amid a culture of indifference which not infrequently turns ruthless, our style of life should instead be devout, filled with empathy, compassion and mercy, drawn daily from the wellspring of prayer.

Like the shepherds of Bethlehem, may we too, with eyes full of amazement and wonder, gaze upon the Child Jesus, the Son of God. And in his presence may our hearts burst forth in prayer: 'Show us, Lord, your mercy, and grant us your salvation' (Ps 85:8)."

What a wonderful sermon that speaks to our consciences! Happy Christmas everyone.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to you and your families.

May your hearts be filled with joy and happiness this Christmas season, for it is a special occasion. A time of warmth, friendship, laughter, festivity and, above all, celebration.

It doesn't matter how many years have passed since that momentous day in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, but the joy and wonder of it still shines through. God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son, so that all who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Let's keep the true meaning of Christmas in our hearts.

Pope Benedict XVI expresses it clearly in these words:

"God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfills them. The child that was born in Bethlehem did indeed bring liberation, but not only for the people of that time and place - he was to be the Saviour of all people throughout the world and throughout history. And it was not a political liberation that he brought, achieved through military means: rather, Christ destroyed death for ever and restored life by means of his shameful death on the Cross. And while he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God. Out of love for us he took upon himself our human condition, our fragility, our vulnerability, and he opened up for us the path that leads to the fullness of life, to a share in the life of God himself. As we ponder this great mystery in our hearts this Christmas, let us give thanks to God for his goodness to us, and let us joyfully proclaim to those around us the good news that God offers us freedom from whatever weighs us down: he gives us hope, he brings us life."

Monday, 22 September 2014

Book review: "Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media" by Nick Davies

For anyone interested in knowing how the media works, I would recommend reading Nick Davies’ excellent book “Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media”. Davies is a veteran British journalist who has seen all the changes in his industry over the last few decades. The picture he paints is not a pretty one. Much of the changes have not been for the better, such that today the mass media operates like a “global village idiot, deeply ignorant and easily led.”

From the Millennium Bug to the existence of WMD in Iraq, used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the media has not told the truth and engaged in what Davies calls “Flat Earth News”. This is when “a story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.” It seems that the media’s role in the build-up to war in 2003 is what compelled Davies to write this book and investigate why truth telling has disintegrated into the way it has. He is aided by a specially commissioned team of researchers from Cardiff University.

What has led to falling standards in the media over the years? Why are journalists today failing to perform the basic functions in their profession such as fact checking and instead recycling second-hand wire copy and PR material? The author traces this trend to the 1960s when the new corporate owners began taking over newspapers and imposing their commercial logic on the industry. The “grocers” as the author likes to call them, such as Rupert Murdoch, cut costs and more costs over time to improve their profits, and at the same time increased the content of newspapers, which resulted in less fact checking and more “churnalism”.

It is not just British newspapers but newspapers across the world that have suffered the same plight as their British counterparts. This means that Flat Earth News has gone global. The fall in quality has made it easier for PR companies and the covert world of intelligence agencies to infiltrate the media. He cites the case of the “NatWest Three” as an example of PR at work. A very successful PR campaign transformed the image of three very corrupt employees of NatWest Bank, who were involved in a scam, into poor innocent victims of American law when faced with the prospect of extradition to the US. There is a whole chapter dealing with the production of propaganda in the media, which is nothing new but seems to have grown significantly since 9/11 without much public debate. Davies is careful to point out, however, that much of the distortion is done by feeding unsuspecting journalists than through directly controlled assets.

The various unwritten rules of news production are laid bare: prefer cheap safe stories, especially with statements from official sources, to tricky expensive ones; avoid the electric fence of the Official Secrets Act and, to a larger extent, libel law; fit the surrounding consensus and give them what they want to hear even if it’s not true; always give both sides of the story just as a safety net;  go along with moral panic; and run stories which are being widely published elsewhere (“Ninja Turtle Symdrome”). When journalists don’t toe the line they can face the consequences – as Andrew Gilligan found out when his story attacked the government for its handling of the intelligence on Iraqi weapons.

Nick Davies is credited for his part in exposing the phone hacking scandal and he touches upon it here in a chapter on the “dark arts”. From bribing police officers and civil servants to using private investigators, the author gives a disturbing insight into the world of the dark arts. It is true that the dividing line as to what is legal and illegal is ill defined, but the greater problem is the greed of newspapers for wanting to make money out of confidential and salacious information.

Nick Davies
The book is very well researched and skilfully written with plenty of examples to back up the author’s points. Indeed, it is the examples in the book that make it such an interesting read. There is a chapter each on three of the most well known British newspapers – The Sunday Times, The Observer and The Daily Mail; unfortunately none of them make for comfortable reading. The seesaw in fortunes of the Insight Team at The Sunday Times, which famously exposed the MI6 agent Kim Philby of being a KGB operative, is a particularly interesting tale that mirrored the change in ownership of the newspaper and its priorities. Although Davies is primarily a Guardian man, he tries to be as objective as possible, criticising both right-wing and left-wing newspapers, but it’s clear he is no fan of Rupert Murdoch.

For those people who have long suspected some falsehood and distortion in the media, this book gives adequate credence to that view. It is not so much that journalists deliberately set out to tell lies, but more the case that circumstances, driven by commercial interests, have led to the current state of affairs. With less time to file their stories, less resources at their disposal and the pressure to adhere to the production rules, truth telling has suffered. Davies doesn’t finish on an optimistic note and I share his pessimism. Everything he has described in the book, he confesses, seems to be symptoms of a disease that has set in and just seems to be getting worse. The book is both an illuminating and depressing account of our global media.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Something to think about...

1. Stay away from anger…It hurts…Only You!

2. If you are right then there is no need to get angry, and if you are wrong then you don’t have any right to get angry.

3. Patience with family is love; patience with others is respect. Patience with self is confidence and patience with GOD is faith.

4. Never think hard about the PAST, it brings tears…Don’t think more about the FUTURE, it brings fears…Live this moment with a smile, it brings cheers.

 5. Every test in our life makes us bitter or better, every problem comes to make us or break us. The choice is ours whether we become victims or victorious.

6. Beautiful things are not always good but good things are always beautiful.

7. Do you know why God created gaps between fingers? So that someone who is special to you comes and fills those gaps by holding your hand forever.

8. Happiness keeps you sweet, so try and be as happy from within as possible.

9. God has sent us all in pairs…someone somewhere is made for you…so wait for the right time and right moment.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Easter holiday in Barcelona and Montserrat

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Sagrada Familia
A pre-booked taxi took us to Gatwick Airport early in the morning. Our flight on Vueling Airlines was half an hour late. However, the pilots seemed to make up for the delay on the flight to Barcelona. We landed in blazing sunshine with hardly a cloud in the sky. The airport was clean and spacious. A taxi took us to our hotel, Acta Antibes, in the centre of the city. Seeing the palm trees and dry sundrenched surroundings, there was a distinctly Mediterranean feel to the place. We checked into our hotel and then went to a local restaurant for lunch. Later in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays were less intense, we walked up to the Sagrada FamiliaAntoni Gaudi’s most celebrated building.

There were plenty of tourists, including many youngsters, milling around the Sagrada Familia with its tall towering spires. The church was nothing like what I had seen before: a peculiar mix of Gothic, modernism and naturalistic features. There were three façades, each with a different biblical theme: the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory (representing the road to God). Building work is still ongoing and is expected to be complete only by 2026. We also visited the Arc de la Triomf and Parc de la Ciutadella. Walking along the streets, with its wide tree lined pavements and central pedestrian walkways, there was a relaxed, unhurried atmosphere which we liked.

Thursday 17 April 2014

A view of the city with the Columbus Monument
We had breakfast in a local café managed by two friendly ladies. At 9am our tour guide, Marta, greeted us at the hotel reception. She was a middle aged woman with shoulder length frizzy brown hair, tanned complexion and slight American accent. She was delighted to hear my surname Ignatius, which is Ignacio (pronounced “Ignathio”) in Spanish. In the tour bus she explained that she was born in Barcelona and raised in America before settling in the city of her birth after university. Her father was Spanish while her mother came from Puerto Rica. Two American families joined us on our tour. Marta gave a good running commentary of the city and its history as we toured it, visiting the main attractions including the National Palace, Montjuic (“mountain of the Jews”), the Columbus Monument, Port Olympic (marina, shops, restaurants, galleries, etc), Park Guell, La Pedrara, Passeig de Gracia, Plaza Catalyunya and the Sagrada Familia.
Park Guell

It was interesting to note that Freemasons had a role in the planning of the city with its equidistant blocks. Gaudi’s financial patron, Eusebi Güell, was also a Freemason and there were clearly Masonic symbolism in Park Guell. The death of the dictator Franco and the Olympic Games in 1992 are the two main events, said our tour guide, that transformed Barcelona to the vibrant, modern, outward looking city it is today. After checking out of our hotel and eating lunch in a local restaurant, we took the train to Monistrol de Montserrat, about an hour’s journey from Barcelona. In the background of our hotel, Hostal Guilleumes, was the famous mountain of Montserrat.

Friday 18 April 2014

We were now in the heart of Catalonia, where people speak Catalan rather than Spanish. Like Scotland in the UK, Catalonia is a region which is peacefully and determinedly asking for independence. After breakfast we walked to the train station and took the rack railway all the way up to Montserrat. We were joined on the train by many young families and their children. The journey uphill, meandering along the side of the mountain, was quite exciting.

Montserrat is famous for its Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, which hosts the famous Virgin of Montserrat - a black statue of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. The views from atop the mountain were simply stunning. Being a public holiday, the place was overflowing with people, some of whom were international tourists like us. We waited patiently in the queue to see La Moreneta ("the little dark-skinned one") and eventually we got our opportunity. Over the centuries many saints, including St Ignatius of Loyola, and popes have visited the shrine. We joined the Good Friday Passion Service at 5pm in the basilica. Then after lighting a candle, praying for our intentions, and buying a book, we returned to Monistrol de Montserrat. What a way to spend Good Friday and Nithya’s birthday in this holy of places with stunning views!

Saturday 19 April 2014

After a filling breakfast, we checked of our hotel and made our way on foot to the train station. As we sat waiting for our train back to Barcelona, a young lady greeted us by saying “hola” (Spanish for “hello”). As a Londoner, I wasn’t expecting this. Spain is a very different country to Britain. Here people are less reserved and more family oriented. They work to live rather than live to work. Businesses are small to medium sized enterprises and work-life balance is important. The main meal is at lunch time, which is normally a three course meal, and that is accompanied by a siesta, after which people return to work and finish late.

Our hotel in Barcelona this time was Tres Torres Atiram, situated in a quiet residential area surrounded by posh apartments in the north east of the city, not far from Barcelona FC Stadium. I wanted to find the way to Maria Reina Church, close to the Monastery of Pedralbes, which offered an English mass on Sundays. As we walked along the salubrious surroundings we realised we were in an affluent area of the city. We found the church okay and then returned via a meandering route, stopping along the way at a restaurant to have some nice ice cream.

Sunday 20 April 2014

The hotel provided a good selection of continental style food for breakfast. We checked out and walked to Maria Reina Church for the 10.30am Easter Sunday mass. We had enjoyed nice sunny dry weather up to this point, but today the skies were overcast and rain threatened to be spoil sport. The church, situated on a slightly elevated level relative to the entrance gates, with verandas on both sides, reminded me of the tranquil grounds of Province College in Calicut.
Maria Reina Church

We thought we were going to be the only people at mass until the last fifteen minutes before it was due to start. The priest, who we met prior to the service, was an elderly Jesuit who had spent many years in Bombay but was born in Kilburn, London. After mass, we joined people for tea and cake. The majority of people were clearly Americans but there was also a family from Kerala, who we talked to.

Transportation and food costs are considerably cheaper in Spain than in UK. We took the train to Barcelona Airport and, after checking in, we enjoyed the final meal of our holiday in a tapas restaurant. It had been a most enjoyable Easter holiday and we had come to like Spain. The country, with its people, culture, and lifestyle had endeared us to it. I was keen to visit Spain again sometime in the future, and probably to a different part of the country.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Britain's increasing inequality

I thought the days of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist were over, but obviously not. A report by the charity Oxfam has found that the five richest families in the UK are wealthier than the bottom 20% of the entire population and the gap between the rich and the rest of the population has grown significantly over the last two decades.

According to the report:
The agency warned that just five UK households have more money than the poorest 12.6 million Britons - almost the same number of people as those living in households below the UK poverty line.
Oxfam's figures also show that over the past two decades the wealthiest 0.1 percent have seen their income grow nearly four times faster than the least well off 90 percent of the population. In real terms, that means a wealthy elite have seen their income grow by £24,000 a year, enough to buy a small yacht or a sports car, whilst the bottom 90 percent of Britons' incomes have gone up by only a few pounds a week. The average UK salary is £26,500-a-year.

Ben Phillips, Oxfam's Director of Campaigns and Policy, said: "Britain is becoming a deeply divided nation, with a wealthy elite who are seeing their incomes spiral up, whilst millions of families are struggling to make ends meet.

"It's deeply worrying that these extreme levels of wealth inequality exist in Britain today, where just a handful of people have more money than millions struggling to survive on the breadline."  

Growing numbers of Britons are turning to charity-run foodbanks, yet at the same time the highest earners in the UK have had the biggest tax cuts of any country in the world.
With billions in welfare cuts still to come and increasing pressure to offer more tax cuts for the rich, the charity is asking all political parties to audit how their emerging policies would affect economic inequality in the UK.

Britain's five richest families

1 Duke of Westminster (£7.9bn) is UK’s richest landlord. Owns 190 acres in Belgravia.

2 Reuben brothers (£6.9bn)  Self-made Monaco-based billionaire brothers Simon and David, with money in property.

3 Hinduja brothers (£6bn) London-based Srichand and Gopichand run Hinduja Group involved in industries from trucking to banking.

4 Cadogan family (£4bn) Former Chelsea FC chairman, owns Cadogan Estates and most of Chelsea in West London.

5 Mike Ashley (£3.3bn) Sports Direct chief, Newcastle United owner.

Worldwide problem

Of course, inequality is not a UK specific problem. There are growing levels of inequality in other countries too. Indeed, we seem to be living in a world in which the tiny super rich seem to lord it over the rest of us.

Oxfam warns that "extreme inequality is creating a vicious circle where wealth concentrated in the hands of a few is used to buy political influence which is used to rig the rules in favour of a small elite and perpetuate inequality."

"Such extreme inequality is to the detriment of social mobility and is also increasingly understood to undermine both the pace and sustainability of economic growth."

Monday, 3 February 2014

RIP Meredith Kercher (1985-2007)

With the media circus over the trial of the Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, it’s easy to forget who was the real victim in this long running saga: the twenty-one year British university student Meredith Kercher, who was brutally raped and murdered in the Italian city of Perugia in 2007. Meredith had everything to live for, being an attractive and intelligent girl, yet her life was tragically taken away so young. There is something haunting when one looks at her old photos with her happy, smiling, innocent face. She certainly didn’t deserve to be killed. My sympathies go out to her family, still trying to come to terms with Meredith’s death.

I must admit that when the murder was first reported in the press late in 2007 I didn’t follow it closely. My interest grew gradually over time as I felt increasingly sympathetic for the dead girl’s family. With the media interest intense and often unhealthy, I wondered if a fair trial could possibly happen. Also having a young girl myself, I could only imagine the turmoil they were going through.

I have studied the evidence and the behaviour of the accused, and I have come to the conclusion that the Italian justice system has rightly upheld the convictions of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito. There was sufficient evidence in the initial trial to convict all the three accused -  Rudy Guede, Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox. The acquittals of Knox and Sollecito were a miscarriage of justice, and the Italian Supreme Court rightly allowed a prosecution appeal.

A very slick campaign of misinformation, carefully orchestrated by the Seattle based PR firm Gogerty Marriott employed by Amanda Knox’s father, had been at work from the beginning, convincing large swathes of the American media and parts of the British media too (The Independent and The Guardian in particular) of Amanda Knox’s innocence. The PR campaign has constantly tried to obfuscate the facts and misled the media, but I am glad the Italians saw through this and formed their own judgement.

The damning evidence

Here’s the main evidence to implicate all the three accused:
  • more than one person attacked Meredith (there were no defensive marks on Meredith’s body, suggesting an inability to react normally, and there were two different types of knife wounds)
  • the knife recovered from Sollecito’s apartment contained the DNA of Amanda Knox and Kercher
  • the bra clasp of the victim had Sollecito’s DNA
  • a burglary was staged after the murder (broken glass had fallen on top of the scattered objects)
  • footprints compatible with Sollecito and Knox made with the victim’s blood (discovered by investigators after tests with luminol)
  • Knox’s blood mixed with Kercher’s blood where the burglary was staged (even though Knox testified that the bathroom was clean the day before the murder)
  • contradicting alibis of Knox and Sollecito
  • Knox’ false accusation of an entirely innocent man – her boss, Patrick Lumumba
More supporting evidence, of course, was presented at the trial, which I don’t want to go into here.

Is Amanda Knox a psychopath?

Seeing the images of Amanda Knox on television I had the impression that she was a very disturbed girl. During the initial trial, she hardly showed any emotion over the brutal killing of her flatmate. She was pictured kissing Sollecito extensively. There was a coldness and detachment that seemed odd. There were reports of her doing cartwheels in the police station. She deliberately played up to the media. In her post-acquittal interviews, she tried to convince her audience that she was the victim of injustice; sympathy for the victim seemed more contrived. Now a prison guard, Angela Antonietti , has said Knox was known as the “Ice Maiden” when in prison because of her cold-hearted nature. To me these are characteristics consistent with a psychopathic personality.

Here’s the view of a highly experienced American psychotherapist, Dr Coline Covington, in 2009 now practicing in UK before the latest verdict:

Knox’s narcissistic pleasure at catching the eye of the media and her apparent nonchalant attitude during most of the proceedings show the signs of a psychopathic personality. Her behaviour is hauntingly reminiscent of Eichmann’s arrogance during his trial for war crimes in Jerusalem in 1961 and most recently of Karadzic’s preening before the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
The psychopath is someone who has no concern or empathy for others, no awareness of right and wrong, and who takes extreme pleasure in having power over others. The psychopath has no moral conscience and therefore does not experience guilt or remorse.
Most psychopaths are highly skilled at fooling those around them that they are normal by imitating the emotions that are expected of them in different circumstances. They are consummate at charming people and convincing them they are in the right. It is only when they reveal a discrepancy in their emotional response that they let slip that something may be wrong with them.

The psychopath is the conman, or in the case of Amanda Knox, the con-woman par excellence. Her nickname ‘Foxy Knoxy’, given to her as a young girl for her skills at football, takes on a new meaning.
Whether or not Knox, who is appealing her verdict, is ultimately found guilty, her chilling performance remains an indictment against her. Her family’s disbelief in the outcome of the trial can only be double-edged.

Justice for Meredith

The Knox family and their supporters have been quick to blame the Italian justice system after the latest ruling. There is an implicit assumption of cultural superiority in their accusation, as if the American model of justice is somehow the only acceptable standard. This is clearly a prejudiced view. I believe due process was carried out and the Italians conducted a fair trial. The case is not finished of course. The defence have another chance to appeal to the Italian Supreme Court.

My sympathies are firmly with the family of Meredith Kercher. Their loss is indeed great. I hope one day they get justice. RIP Meredith.