They say travel broadens the mind. Even so, a small town on the Italian-Swiss Border wasn’t quite the place I expected to learn life lessons earlier this year.

On holiday in Lake Como, we took a coach for a day trip to board the train high up into the Alps to spend the day in St. Moritz.

The coach stopped for a comfort break just inside Italy in the small town of Tirano – a fairly unremarkable place except for the imposing Basilica of the Madonna with its Romanesque bell tower in the town square. (You’re also guaranteed wonderful coffee in Tirano!)

Our tour guide explained the story that in the early 1500s, a plague had hit the town, killing many of the residents.

But in 1504, the Virgin Mary appeared to a local girl, Mario Omodei, promising an end to the plague.

After the apparition, there were no further deaths, and the town built a shrine dedicated to the Madonna.

The church is impressive inside and out, and in one corner was the tiny sanctuary where the shrine was.

As I entered, I noticed one of our party (a Dublin woman) struggling to kneel. I stood back silently and respectfully and watched the older woman who, despite her lack of physical mobility in the tight, confined space, was determined to get down and pray.

For those few moments, she was in another world, so to speak; at one with her God to whom she unburdened all her cares. She got up and looked at peace.

It was a spiritual moment. As a non-Catholic who doesn’t fully grasp her faith’s ideology, I couldn’t help but feel humbled, and it taught me the value of tolerance and respect for people of a different denomination.

Indeed, the incident reminded me that everyone’s journey of faith – or indeed, not having faith – is a personal one, and there’s a level of intolerance today which results in people being judgemental of others’ beliefs in an unhealthy racist, homophobic and misogynistic society.

And all because others don’t conform to the norms which the loudest voices insist we should all follow.

A relative of mine, Tim Reynolds, is a young gay Christian man. I’ve known Tim since he was a young child and watched him grow into a wonderful person; a man of integrity who lives out his faith in a tremendously caring way.

He recently responded to a social media post which had described gay people as ‘Satanic’; he said he was speaking out because “words matter”.

Tim cited the many problems gay people, especially younger people, faced in society; ostracised, ridiculed, belittled and bullied.

And “in churches, they can be made to feel like freaks, less than, to be pitied, or worse – possessed”.

“For years, I spent my life wracked with fear, worry, shame and brokenness over a theology that made me feel I was dirty and less simply because I was gay for as long as I can remember,” he said.

“After a good few years of excellent counselling, great friends and family who loved me for who I was, I’m in a healthy space, in a loving, committed relationship, and live with a knowledge that I am loved by God as the gay man He created me to be.”

Tim says he has now found a church, Redeemer Central in Belfast, that welcomes and accepts gay people for who they are.

Their website says they’re a “church community in Belfast practising the way of Jesus and working for the peace and good of our city”.

“Wherever you are on your journey, you are so welcome, there is space at the table,” they say.

But sadly, that kind of church can be counted on one hand in Northern Ireland.

I think there’s a certain irony that, privately, many Church-going people are more thoughtful and accepting of the debate over Christianity and the gay community now, but don’t say so openly because they are not confident enough in the face of dogmatic others.

Another Christian friend of mine is the Rev. Karen Sethuraman, who is the only woman Baptist Minister in Ireland, and suffers horrible misogynistic trolling from people who can’t tolerate women in the pulpit.

Karen is a beacon of love and compassion for her faith – the very tenets of Christianity which seem to have evaded the judgmental bitterness of her critics.

She is a member of the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum, and recently posted: “The majority of us want to live in peace with our neighbours. Whatever our background, faith or no faith, gender, sexuality and so on, this gives me hope. And goodness we need hope.”

Last week, she also said: “So great to stand with (and hug) our LGBT+ community amidst the street preachers in Belfast today. Screaming down a mic to those who pass by that they are ‘children of wrath and going to hell’ speaks nothing of a gospel of love and compassion. Love wins.”

I also think of the recent death of Sinead O’Connor, whose spiritual journey was remarkable. As controversial as it was, tearing up a picture of The Pope was a manifestation of her standing up against the evils of child abuse, which is something many so-called Christians failed to do.

Sinead’s faith was complicated; in an interview once with Gay Byrne, she recalled how she liked to read the Old Testament, and especially the books of the prophets.

In later life, she became a Muslim, and throughout her life she spoke out against the evils of this corrupt, materialistic, selfish world, and spoke up for the vulnerable and oppressed.

This was the very essence of true religion, yet she was often treated terribly by established religions.

The mainstream churches are struggling across Britain and Ireland with falling attendances and suggestions that they are no longer Christian countries.

In my mind, in times gone by, the structures and standards of the Church gave a sense of purpose to society; a moral code, if you like, which has stood us well.

There is still room for Church; for those of us who believe in God the real church will never die, and it is only the failings of people in living out selfish lives that is seeing a fall-off in belief among people disillusioned with such behaviour.

There are many people of different faiths who still find peace in their personal relationship with a God or higher being who live life with an empathy for others; Quakers believe a life lived in the service of good deeds is essential to the salvation of others.

Such empathy isn’t exclusive to people of faith, of course. Humanists don’t accept religion or faith dogma, but believe in a more humane society, working for the benefit of others.

And there many others who do not accept religion who behave with a caring and good attitude to their fellow-people who would put to shame the many Christians who display a nastiness to others bordering on hatred.

My old uncle used to look at people’s various beliefs and talk about a common humanity, saying: “We all eat at the same feast, we just use different cutlery.”

My own faith is that of Christianity; a follower of Jesus Christ, and as such, someone who should carry out His command to love one another.

But if I want others to respect me for what I am, I should also respect them, and try to understand whatever path they are following.