I have LOVED this series and have felt really inspired to reflect on its presentation of what being a good priest actually means in a complicated and broken world.
Father Michael Kerrigan embodies the three-fold nature of ministry in terms of who he is, what he does and what he represents as a Catholic priest.
Firstly, he is a person of immense and stunning integrity – he seems always to be naturally himself, never inhabiting that sanctimonious and cloying clerical persona that clergy so often put on or mysteriously become, perhaps protecting their inner core as they do so. But Michael never wears a mask, instead he is unashamedly honest about his frailties, his vulnerability and his scars, and yet he rarely allows these to get in the way of the ministry that calls him to those who need him most. He models the fact that we do not need to be perfect or unscarred in order to help others, yet at the same time we must not let our own brokeness overwhelm their pain to minister well. One of the reasons he is so good at ‘being’ is that he never tries to fix peoples’ problems. These are, to be fair, too huge for most people to take on board, priest or not. It is not easy to help someone in thousands of pounds of debt, you cannot always stop someone intent on taking their own life, you cannot easily ‘sort’ a young man disturbed by his mental health. Instead, we see Fr Michael simply ‘being with’, having the courage to knock on the doors of his parishioners when he sees or senses there is a problem. Some of these he knows well and others he has only had the most fleeting of encounters but often he bravely pursues. We see him listening and drinking tea, in a compassionate and ungrandiose manner, offering what he can in terms of his own historical faith and the hope that goes with it. And his parishioners, on the whole, love him for it.
Secondly we see Michael being a priest in the sense that he is involved in the four-fold core ministry of what it means to live an ordained life – he presides at the Eucharist, he preaches passionately, he prays with and for others and he accompanies people as they walk the often hard and stony path of life. Admittedly we don’t see Michael doing the extras – raising money for the roof, getting involved in ‘mission activities’, teaching the faith through small groups although sometimes these are implied. But we do see him acting as a prophet leader – speaking out, often bravely, against the evils of the age which have a tangible and detrimental effect on the people in his ‘soul care’. So he advocates against the insatiable addiction of the slot machine, against the discrepancies in the benefit system and links his sermons with the person of Christ and the gospel stories, often upsetting regular Catholics within his congregation.
He celebrates Holy Communion at considerable cost to himself as he has intense flashbacks of his own abuse as a child and yet he offers this sacrament of love, forgiveness, equality, redemption to those who come, desperate and holding out their hands for it. The policeman Andrew, caught up in the agonising decision of whether to speak the truth at the expense of disloyalty to his colleagues, says “Why did you give me the sacrament?”. Michael throws a question back, as Jesus often did too, “Why did you come up?”. “Because I have never needed it as much as I do now” , Andrew replies and Michael says “And that’s why I gave it to you”.
And Michael prays – simply, unself-consciously, faithfully. He prays because this is what God asks priests to do, because he believes that this will bring genuine hope and some renewed revelation to those he is praying with and for.
And Michael acts prophetically – he talks to the manager of the gambling shop and he talks to leaders in the community about the effect this has on people who already have nothing materially. He tries to change the culture of spending a lot of money on fancy 1st Communion gear, he suggests the food bank to those who need it, he becomes a mediator between two people prejudiced against each other. He speaks a sensible, unjudgmental faith which pours a prosaic yet holy balm on the raw wounds of those who cross his path.
Finally, in Fr Michael anyone interested or contemplating what it might feel like to be a representational leader of the church need look no further. Rarely do we see him without a dog collar or vestments. Fr Michael is Fr Michael, the priest in the community where he resides. He is known and he is recognised as someone representing Christ as well as a broken church with all its flaws and dirty secrets. His presence provides endless opportunities for people to pour out their troubles, to be treated with dignity, love and to be shown God’s mercy and forgiveness, for them to have an alternative vision of hope presented to them, even if they refuse to take it. As most clergy understand, living this kind of visual ministry, although wonderful is also inevitably costly. Gay Carl throws the generous compliment back in Michael’s face because to him Michael has ceased to be an actual individual with feelings and inconsistencies like the rest of us, he simply represents the hypocrisy of a church who offers pastoral kindness and welcome to individual gay people whilst institutionally stating that they are living a life of sin.
More than this though, Michael absorbs such a lot of pain. Like Christ he might just as well be hanging up there on the cross, soaking up every millilitre of problematic angst. So it’s no wonder that, as the series draws to a close, he tells his clergy friend, Peter that he can’t go on any longer, he has had enough. Can’t go on because he can never win, never please everyone, is so embroiled with the complications of moral dilemmas which have no easy solution, so compromised in terms of integrity, so easily daubed as ‘a hypocrite’ as so many genuinely saintly people so often are. How will all be redeemed, we wonder as viewers, and indeed we ask how would we like the series to end – will there be some kind of simplistic and unrealistic hopefulness or salvation or will this become another nail in the coffin of institutional religion’s reputation?
As we wonder whether the final scene will indeed be the last mass that Fr Michael will ever celebrate we are perhaps soothed and encouraged by the fact that those whose lives have so closely interwoven with his over the last 6 weeks seem to have had a word with themselves. They seem to have done some serious ruminating on the significant ministry Michael has offered them in their brokness. Even those who Michael has let down, challenged, not ‘sorted’ , tell him as they come up to receive Communion that he is ‘a wonderful priest’. It is an incredibly beautiful and moving recognition of the priest and person that he is and for the presence and living sacrament he embodies in a harsh and broken world. And in the sense that this weird and so-often misunderstood vocation is still so needed and well as so appreciated.
Catch up on Iplayer or get the DVD.