broken by broken

Some broken is good broken, and necessary for something else to flourish, and some broken is very bad.

Michael Kerrigan, fictional star of Jimmy McGovern’s recent 6 part drama on BBC 1, Broken, is a broken man whose flashbacks to sexual abuse in his Catholic boys school are getting worse.

It seems also his own mother verbally abused him. So the memories that haunt him include a twisted priest taking advantage during English lessons (shots of Michael’s little shorts-encased legs under the table) and a mother whose own mental health was frail, and whose frail body is now dying. Michael visits every week and lies next to her, holding her hand, refusing to bring any accusation.

That’s a lot of broken.

In addition, Michael is now a Roman Catholic priest himself, perhaps some small miracle, given the obvious trauma of his own experience of Catholic priests. His childhood confessor had told him that if something was amiss at the school, he must keep it quiet. So it was cover up on a massive scale, the injustice of which piles on more trauma upon the original trauma.

Fr. Michael has his own, much wiser, saner confessor now, another priest who is at hand when things get too much for him. He is a good listener, someone who understands the 21st Century. The two of them take tea and discuss, among more weightier things, the difficulty of giving up sugar (“it puts the crucifixion into perspective”).

Michael’s flashbacks would be labelled post traumatic stress disorder nowadays. They reach a peak as he celebrates Mass in his beautiful church in an unspecified northern town. The Mass is the constant in the life of this community, though only a depressingly small number of people each week attend. No obvious church growth here.

As Fr. Michael reaches the height of the Mass, where he breaks the bread, quoting Jesus: “take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you”, the terrible flashbacks threaten to overwhelm him. The accusing words, the silent conspiracy in school corridors.

His hands shake, he stumbles over his words, people in the congregation look worried, but he usually manages to hold it together and the moment passes. This happens every Sunday. Michael knows he’s getting worse but what to do about it?

He is a broken man, and his brokenness derives from shame and feeling unworthy to be a priest.

All comes to a head in the final episode where the brokenness of the past few weeks threatens to overwhelm Michael.

He is broken by his failure to act upon a phone message left by one of his congregation about her mentally ill 18 year old son, who is later shot and killed by police in a botched late night drama arising from the black teenager’s distress at being sent home prematurely from a secure unit (no money for beds).

Michael is also broken by the suicide of Roz, a mother of three who illegally funded an 8 year gambling habit. He is angry about the 16 betting shops in the poorest part of the parish, temples to those shiny machines that prey on people who are so skint, they might as well put their last penny (or tenner) in.

And he is upset for Christina, a young single mother whose betting shop salary was so inadequate she ‘borrowed’ from the till, got the sack and then lied about the date of her mother’s death in order to claim the pension. She tells Fr. Michel: “everyone I know is skint”.

So many people, so much brokenness. McGovern is quick to portray it as not only personal but political. This is the human face of ‘broken Britain’, a forgotten urban northern community where families are eeking out an existence in High Streets full of boarded up shops. In such an environment the Church is an oasis of beauty, peace and even visual splendour.

A silent statue of the Crucified sits in the vestry, the place where Michael prepares to lead his people in Confession of their sins, in preparation for Mass, week in, week out. “Know-all”, he says to Christ, who appears sometimes to answer prayer, and at other times to be achingly silent.

Fr. Michael tells his own confessor that as soon as his mother’s dead, he’s quitting. He’s giving up the priesthood because he feels like a failure in the light of so much overwhelming need.

More pressing, his shame about the past makes him feel unworthy to preside at the Mass. His whole identity as priest is therefore unsustainable in his view. He’s near to breaking point in his brokenness.

One or two caring parishioners ask if he is okay. “Yeh, fine”, his response, because although he pours himself out night and day for his troubled flock; like all professional carers, his theology of receiving help for himself is not well developed.

But he has engendered fierce loyalty and love amongst his flock, as he’s supported individuals in court, in morgues and after brawls on the street. Two of them hatch a plan to give something back, when finally Michael’s mother dies, even as he baulks at taking her funeral. “You’re taking it, you prick”, the terse response of his sister.

And so the Kerrigan clan gather for the funeral of Michael’s mother. Michael hopes this will be his last Mass. He tells his gathered family and flock that it would mean so much to him if they all came to take the bread and the wine, even those hardbitten men who’ve avoided Christ for years, for whatever reason.

The pinnacle of the Mass is reached. Will Fr. Michael wobble, will he stumble over the words that mark out his very identity, his priesthood? “This is my body, broken for you”.

Something happens in that moment – perhaps the shadow of his mother is passing over – Michael says the words with renewed vigour, something has changed. His brokenness has been healed in that moment by Christ’s brokenness.

Which is the whole point of the mass, the Eucharist, the body broken for all.

But there’s more. Parishioners continue to file past. It’s a long mass at the end of his mother’s funeral. “The body of Christ, the body of Christ”. The words come forth, as do all the characters who have lived their dramas in the full glare of Michael and of Christ: the struggling single mum, the black mother whose son was shot dead, the policeman who told the truth regardless, even the betting shop owner.

As they come forward to receive, those who have been primed with this little plan, this sign of love for their priest, hear the invitation, “the body of Christ’. To which they each respond, “Amen, you wonderful priest. Amen, you wonderful priest”.

Fr. Michael is healed by their love.

As the desert fathers knew, we live and die with our neighbour. Maybe, just maybe, Michael had to get to the end of his own capacity to deal with brokenness, in order to receive his own healing in the brokenness of Christ and in the love of his fellow Christians.

So there’s bad broken, and there’s good broken. And then there’s the brokenness of being mortal, which is at the root of all other brokenness. That’s a broken only Christ can heal by his own body broken for all. For Michael the priest, this is the ultimate healing.






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