“I am a Catholic,” confessed Billy Connolly. “I have an A level in guilt.”
Catholic guilt was very much the theme of the BBC1 drama series, “Broken,” which concluded its six part run this Tuesday.
I didn’t expect much of this production, written by Jimmy McGovern, assuming it was going to be your usual Catholic-bashing exercise. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Now at this point, you may want to stop reading this blog. You have another 27 days to watch the series on BBC I-player.
Hard-guy Sean Bean plays the main character, Father Michael Kerrigan, a deeply sensitive, careworn soul who does his best to serve his deprived working-class community single-handedly.
It seems that Bean initially turned the role down because Fr Kerrigan is a character who is passive and listens. McGovern counted this: “I said that’s not passive – he doesn’t listen to people’s sins, he takes them on. After Confession a priest goes out heavier, while the other person goes out lighter.”
Amazingly in just six episodes all the big issues are covered, always head on and in stark daylight: addiction and debt, sexual abuse and homophobia, poverty and full-on materialism, racism and establishment cover-up. All human life is here except strangely, this being filmed in Kirkdale, Everton Football Club.
In fact, the church requisitioned by the BBC for the series is one I know reasonably well, St Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street, Everton, where we have our annual Diocesan church-schools Eucharist.
It is here where McGovern went to school. He reflects “We have the best priests in Liverpool, the best in the world. It’s not bells and smells, it’s getting down and dirty with the people, caring for alcoholics, the poor, the destitute, the homeless, fighting against bureaucracy and hypocrisy.”
However, the heart of the drama is guilt – and Fr Kerrigan is as guilty as hell. He feels it deeply, especially as he consecrates the elements at the climax of the Mass. He knows he is totally unworthy, no way fit to serve God. His hand shakes. “I’m not a priest, I’m an imposter.”
We are given flashbacks to how this guilt has been nurtured over the years – an abusive mother and an abusing priest wreak their damage over the years.
Kerrigan has a sensitive conscience and he confesses to a parishioner (shouldn’t it be the other way around?) that his whole life is making penance for the wrongs he did in his youth– we are spared the details – to two young women.
Wonderfully – and somewhat unrealistically, all is resolved in the final episode, even during the final scene.
Fr Kerrigan’s mother, even on her deathbed, confesses to him her maternal mistreatment. And Fr Kerrigan’s parishioners (virtually the entre cast except for the betting shop owner, obviously) confess their admiration for him as a priest.
As McGovern himself observes “People sometimes forget that they love each other.”
But his guilt is not addressed in McGovern’s script. How does Fr Kerrigan enjoy God’s free forgiveness?
“While the resurrection promises us a new and perfect life in the future, God loves us too much to leave us alone to contend with the pain, guilt and loneliness of our present life.” (Josh McDowell)
It is one thing to be forgiven by God through Jesus’ death on the cross – the price paid, our debt paid, our stain removed. But we need, like Fr Kerrigan, to know this deep-down in our hearts.: “I’m forgiven!”
Here we need the communion of the Holy Spirit, whom Fr Kerrigan regularly invokes at the beginning of each service.
So the apostle Paul rejoices: “Already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us.” (Romans 5:5 JBP)
All this is through grace and it is through God’s grace that Fr Kerrigan invites his fallen congregation, especially his own dysfunctional family, to receive Communion at his mother’s funeral.
For when it comes down to it there is simply nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. We simply come as we are, realising that we are broken and have nothing to give except our damaged lives, such is the wonder of God’s grace.
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.