I don’t know what it was. Perhaps the sense of theatre; perhaps the attention and enjoying the idea of performing in front of people. It may have been something about being impressed by those I had seen. It may have been something I did to impress members of my family. But in the end it was clearly not a calling. Not my vocation. Not my path in life. Despite saying Mass as a child and pretending to be a priest for my Nan and others, I did not become Father Ben – not in the priestly sense any way.
I have often thought about those childhood scenes – white table cloth or towel placed over a table; candles positioned on either side; small missal placed in the centre of my homemade altar. I used ice cream wafers for hosts and vases for the challis. I wore a white bed sheet or an adult’s coat draped around my shoulders like a vestment. This have have been a fake church and altar but it looked the business. I would then proceed to say Mass – word for word, from start to finish. My Nan really enjoyed it – partly because she felt this absolved her from having go that week – this was her attendance ticked off. Partly too – and most catholics can probably relate to this – that it was seen as a proud thing for someone in your family to be a priest or be involved in some way with the church. A pillar of the community. Someone to respect. It wasn’t like playing up front for Liverpool but it was pretty close.
Now of course there is a danger of saying that this role-playing ritual is somehow the result of a brain-washed childhood – that this is evidence of the church and schools I attended getting into young hearts and minds at an early age and indoctrinating them. Any catholic will tell you that schools and which do a fantastic job at drilling the teachings, language and ritual of the region into you – it stays there for the rest of your life no matter how lapsed you become. There have been some studies that show that even people with advanced dementia can still recite the Mass or benediction. I don’t doubt that successful brain-washing played a part but there was something more than that. Something noble and sweet. Something which Jimmy McGovern in his brilliant – deeply moving, funny and poignant – recent BBC series Broken has tapped into.
He understood that for many catholics growing up their priest was someone they held – I held – in the highest regard. They were the lifeblood of the local community. They were involved in people’s lives in so many ways. They were admired, respected, loved by those around them. They were held up as role models; as leaders; as inspirations. They were brilliant.
Father Michael – Jimmy’s creation – brilliantly embodied by Sean Bean – is all these things and more. He is a perfect priest – someone you could believe in; someone grounded in real life; someone you could turn to for help and advice; someone who could make you smile as well as be there for you in your darkest moments. I have met many priests in my life and those who stand out for me had that wonderfully calm, reassuring confidence that their faith gave them; faith that allowed them to focus on being a warm, kind, comforting presence to you and the rest of their flock.
When my Nan died it had been a few years since I had been to Mass – I was going through (not my first or last) a mini-crisis of faith. She had asked me – no, instructed me – to speak at her funeral – she wanted me to tell her story; “let them all have a good look at you”. I decided to go and see her local priest – he was newish so we hadn’t known him – and have a chat about proceedings and to make a confession. Further evidence of the early life brain-washing: I didn’t think it right to stand at the altar and talk abut my Nan without being absolved of my sins. I told him this and he laughed. “That’s all finished now”, he said. Let’s have a cuppa instead.
I didn’t make it beyond the age of about ten thinking about becoming a priest, but if I did – if I had been called to serve god and my community in that way – I would like to think I would have been someone in the Father Dooley mould; someone, who like Sean Bean’s depiction, would remember that being a priest, like all great things in life is less about you and more about what you can do for others. Less about broadcast and more about receive. Less about the church and more about the community.
Photo is taken from the BBC website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08s7nyz