The Parish Priest of Cilldargan
(a sequel to Jan Milnes' Alternate to Sweating Statues)
by Kevyn Pieters
Chapter 1: Dublin
Author's note: This story is a sequel to Jan Milne's fanfic 'Alternate to Sweating Statues' in which Fr Peter Clifford is thrown out of Ballykissangel by Fr MacAnally for writing to the local newspaper in the wake of the 'Sweating Statues' affair. After a heart-to-heart with Assumpta Fitzgerald, he decides to bid her farewell and leave Ballykissangel. The story follows the subsequent life and career of Fr Clifford. You can read 'Alternate to Sweating Statues' on Margaret Pattinson's fanfiction archive.
Acknowledgements The brilliant writing of Kieran Prendiville and his creation of the wonderful village of BallyK and its priests and people are gratefully acknowledged as is the copyright of BBC and World Productions. I have (of course) borrowed ideas, characters and events from other BallyK fan fic writers, Jan Milnes in particular. I must also declare borrowings and inspiration (without permission) from "Shattered Vows" by David Rice (Michael Joseph 1990) and "Tomorrow is Too Late" by Ray Moore (Penguin Books Ltd 1989).
Peter smiled gratefully but with difficulty as she took his empty 'spill proof' beaker from him and rearranged the pillows behind him. As she left the room, he could hear through the open door distant sounds of people enjoying themselves downstairs. "Peter. See you later," she said with that inimitable breathy descending cadence as she left, gently closing the door behind her. He leaned his head back and closed his tired eyes, wondering if he would be well enough to go downstairs later or even out for a walk, though the sound of the wind-driven rain on the window pane made that seem unlikely. The splashing of the rain on the glass reminded him of his first arrival in Ballykissangel ... flying confessionals and forty shades of grey. He smiled at the memory, then winced as he recalled the despair that he had felt when he had left the village only two and a half years later. "Was that the greatest mistake of my life?" he asked himself, as he often did these days.
On the road from Ballykissangel to Dublin, April 1998
Fr Peter Clifford took his ticket from the driver, pocketed his change and lifted his rucksack from the floor. He chose a seat near the rear of the bus, swung the bag onto the seat and squeezed past it to sit by the window - on the opposite side to Hendley's. He had no wish to meet Kathleen Hendley's pinched criticising stare, but he feared seeing Assumpta Fitzgerald as well, so he kept his eyes to the front until the bus pulled away.
No one had come to see him off, but then he had not announced precisely when and how he would be leaving. As he had walked down the hill to the bus stop, wearing his rain jacket over his clerical collar and suit, and with his rucksack slung over his left shoulder, he had received the usual "Good morning, Father" or a cheery wave from passers by. But a few had looked away from him and said nothing as they passed. One elderly man seeing the rucksack had called him back, grabbed his hand and had asked, "Will you be back, Father?"
"To be honest, Mr Flynn, I don't know. I doubt it, but never say never!"
"Well, some of us'll miss you! Go with God and be well, Father."
"Bye ..." He turned away unable to say more, and walked on towards the bus stop.
The 'miracle' of the sweating Child of Prague statue in St Joseph's chapel in Ballykissangel had brought out the worst in just about everyone, probably including himself, Peter thought. Before the affair he had felt great affection for the congregation at St Joseph's and the people of the village, and had thought that they had grown to like and respect him; after all, they had petitioned the archdiocese to let him stay after he had been there only three months. Had he over-reacted to the credulity of some of the community by accusing them from the pulpit of idolatry and violation of the First Commandment, and of sacrilege by abetting the perpetrators? Perhaps he had overdone it. Even his friends Siobhan Mehigan and Brendan Kearney had found his denunciations slightly amusing.
He still felt anger at Fr MacAnally's knowing complicity with the scam and his financial exploitation of the credulous spectators. Peter's letter to the Cilldargan newspaper, had probably been in the best interests of the Church, in the very long run at least, but no parish priest likes to be contradicted in public - not that Fr Mac ever showed any inhibition in repeatedly humiliating him. To Fr Mac's accusation that he had been disobedient to the Church in contravention of his ordination promise, he could have replied that the promise was to obey and respect his diocesan bishop, not the selfish greed of a mere parish priest. But that would have only made matters even worse between them. The glee in Fr Mac's voice as he had given him his marching orders had been unmistakable. If he accepted a transfer out of BallyK and Cilldargan parish, Fr Mac had said that the record would show only that the transfer to another parish had been at his (Peter's) own request. At the time, Peter had wondered whether Fr Mac would keep that promise, made apparently with the agreement of the auxiliary bishop with responsibility for Wicklow.
Within a day, the archbishop of Dublin had intervened, had summoned Peter to an interview in Dublin, had stated his approval for Peter's conduct throughout, and had hinted that he might be willing to overrule Fr MacAnally and the auxiliary bishop if Peter were determined to stay in Ballykissangel. But seeing no prospect of repairing the complete breakdown in his relationship with Fr MacAnally and sensing that Peter badly needed a change of scene, the Archbishop had appointed Peter to his staff in Dublin, to work in Catholic Youth Care, the youth agency of the archdiocese.
But for Peter all this was fundamentally a side issue. He had been at first fascinated by Assumpta Fitzgerald, then become friends then close friends with her, and had imperceptibly but surely fallen head over heels in love with her. She had come to love him too, notwithstanding her strong and articulate antipathy to the clericalism of the catholic church. He would willingly have petitioned for laicisation and dispensation from the obligations of the priesthood, and endured that tortuous and demeaning process, so that he could be free to marry her in good standing with the church. But her apparent contempt for his faith, the cornerstone of his life, meant that so far as he could see there could be no long term future for them as a couple. She had gone out of her way to apologise to him in abject terms for the deep hurt she had caused him when she had equated the credulity of those who believed in the 'miracle' of the sweating statue with his personal belief in the real presence of the Eucharist. They had talked things through, owning up to the strong feelings they had for each other and their passionate yearnings to be together. His Christian faith was absolutely central to his personality, but she seemed completely blind to this. He was certain that, sooner or later, it would come to divide them, even at the level of the time he committed to prayer and attending Mass. If he gave up the priesthood and then their relationship foundered, he would be absolutely lost; he would not be able to go back; even his own family might reject him. There seemed no option but to leave Ballykissangel (and her), in the hope that he (and she too) could rebuild and get on with life.
He had sent change of address cards to his mother and brothers, and to his priest friends and former colleagues back in England. His younger brother Andrew had replied, "Have you fallen in love again? Some people have all the luck." Fr Laurence Randall, his former parish priest in Manchester, had written, "Thank you for the new address. I am concerned at what I have heard. I shall celebrate Holy Mass for your intentions. Please know that I have every confidence in you and that you will be welcome back here at any time and on any terms. See 1 John 2 v27." Mary Clifford, his mother, had replied, "What on earth has happened? You seemed so very happy in Ballykissangel. I shall pray the rosary for you each day. With all my love. Please pray for me". This last request worried him, she hadn't written that before.
As he travelled by bus to his new post in Dublin, he had no great hopes of what would come of it and he could see no end to the loneliness that so oppressed him. But, it gave him an honorable exit from Ballykissangel and saved him the trauma of more decisions; he could stay in the priesthood for now - running away, as before.
He reached into his bag for his breviary and unzipped it. He had not been too regular in his reading of the Divine Office in recent weeks, but at least today he had time. He found the page for the day's Morning Prayer and began to read the opening psalm ...
In Dublin, April 1998
Peter had been instructed to report to Archbishops House, in Drumcondra, just north of central Dublin., and to ask for Fr Hugh Johns, the Episcopal Vicar for Priests. The bus from Wicklow had taken him to Central Bus Station. From there he had taken a 10-minute bus ride to Lower Drumcondra Road. Archbishop's House, the diocesan headquarters, and its campus were just across the road from the bus stop. He was glad to be on his feet and able to stretch his legs after three hours on the buses. He had arrived just after midday and Hugh took him to lunch in the refectory. Hugh explained that Peter would have a desk at Archbishop's House and a room at a residence on Clonliffe Street, on the other side of Holy Cross College.
As they walked after lunch to Hugh's office, he gave Peter his formal letter of appointment and explained that the archbishop was in Rome so couldn't welcome him in person.
"I'll take you over to the residence later, but there are some things I need to go over with you first. Apart from the rather sketchy annual reports, Fr MacAnally has given us little information on your work in Cilldargan parish. Your file is still very thin, more on Manchester than Ballykissangel! In view of what I have now to tell you, I think it is in your interest to help me flesh out some day-to-day details to bring the file up to date. Now, this next bit is off the record. OK?"
"OK," replied Peter somewhat apprehensively.
"I understand from Bishop Costello that Fr MacAnally told you that your transfer to Archbishop's House would be written up as your request."
"Yes. Unless I resisted, in which case it would be written up as a disciplinary matter."
"Well, I have Fr MacAnally's letter to the archbishop here. I am sad to say that he didn't keep his word, at least not fully. In the letter, he wrote,'Fr Clifford has not met my expectations and has not performed well. Even allowing for his youth and inexperience, his judgement and personal behaviour have been open to question and he has courted scandal. In future, he should be allowed to carry out pastoral work only under the closest supervision'."
"But that's outrageous!"
"I know. And we're not the only ones to think so. The archbishop has annotated the letter: 'This comment says more about Fr MacAnally than Fr Clifford and the personal antipathy of the former towards the latter. To my certain knowledge Fr Clifford has done excellent pastoral work in Cilldargan parish, and without the support that his parish priest should have given. Fr MacAnally's comments are to be disregarded in their entirety.'"
"I don't know what to say. But how could the Archbishop know?"
"Well, you remember the petition?"
"How could I forget!"
"Again, this is absolutely off the record. The archbishop was struck by the contrast between Fr MacAnally's report of your failure to fit in and the enormous support for you from the laity. So, he had my predecessor write in confidence to some local people of standing in the community for their impressions of you and your work. As a cover, he probably gave the impression that he was considering inviting you to incardinate from Salford diocese to Dublin - a bit of a white lie! I can see from the file that he wrote to the local doctor, the matron of the hospital, the headmaster of Ballykissangel National School, the chief social worker for the area, the local councillor, a youth worker, the local superintendent of the Garda, and one of the other assistant priests.
"And they wrote you up well, the doctor particularly - he gave a long list of your quiet successes."
"The battered wife, the foundling and her mother, the homeless family, your talk to the youngsters on relationships, the folk masses, the unmarried mother, the spurious vocation, your driving test, village fundraising, hospital radio, and more besides."
Peter was silent. These successes seemed to him to be dwarfed by his failures and his cowardice in relation to his own life decisions.
"Look, we must press on. There are a lot of gaps in the record which I ought to fill in. Where were you living - all I have here is 'care of Cilldargan presbytery'?"
"I lived in Mr Quigley's house under St Joseph's in Ballykissangel."
"Yes. His daughter told me that before my arrival he had bought the presbytery from the archdiocese as a holiday home for American tourists. He let me stay there as a temporary arrangement, which lasted for the whole of my time there."
Hugh shook his head, not quite believing that Bishop Costello could be so short-sighted. "Hmm. Who did Fr MacAnally arrange as your mentor?"
"Excuse me? Er... no-one ... I think."
"It's diocesan policy that all priests with less then ten years' pastoral experience have a mentor. Did he mentor you himself?"
"I wouldn't have called it that."
"So, what meetings did you have?"
"Well, we had our regular meetings to allocate duties and arrange our diaries every couple of weeks, and various ad hoc ... er ... 'discussions'." Peter made inverted commas in the air with his fingers - which brought a smile to their faces.
"Your various initiatives - folk mass, talk to youth on relationships, and so on, did he suggest or encourage these?"
"Oh no!" laughed Peter. "The usual routine was that if he heard through one of his cronies of something that I was planning, he would telephone to demand my immediate presence in his office in Cilldargan whatever I was doing even when I was in the middle of comforting or counselling a parishioner. He would lay into me but I could usually talk him round eventually because he had been given a distorted impression of what I had in mind. But his permission was always grudging and it was obvious to everyone that I never had his trust. On the few occasions that I actually asked for his advice on a pastoral problem, he changed the subject."
"On one occasion, a terminally ill hospital patient disclosed that, years before, he had killed his wife out of love by overdosing her with morphine to bring an end to her pain. She had previously got him to promise to do this. They had been extremely close. I knew that Fr Mac was acquainted with this man, so I had to ask for advice in an indirect way so as not to betray the confidence. Fr Mac just said that he had always been a difficult man and had never recovered from the loss of his wife, and that was it - back to our diaries!"
"You begin to worry me. What did you do?"
"Play chess!" In response to a puzzled look from Hugh, Peter continued: "When I first met him the ward sister had told me that he was a keen chess player, so I offered him a game, not that I was much good at it. He was merciless - he delighted in sacrificing bishops! As we played, he opened up to me a little. When I made comments about not being good at the game, he would mischievously misinterpret the 'game' as code for the 'priesthood'. He asked what my parents thought of my becoming a priest. I said that my mother thought that I would go far in the Church but my late father put his faith in professions rather than vocations. 'Wise man' was his response.
"I had admired the photograph of his wife standing by their vintage car, and he told me how they had met, fallen in love, married, how beautiful she had been, how she had endured a long and painful incapacitating illness, and how he had nursed her himself. He asked whether I had been in love and could see in my face that I had. He told me how he had ended her suffering, how he missed her, and how his first and last thoughts each day were of her. I was shocked by his admission and said something trite about all life being sacred. This made him angry, so angry that he had a seizure and I had to leave so that the nurses could treat him. I left with his angry words, 'get that priest out of here' ringing in my ears.
"I was anxious at having made such a mess; I could tell that despite his protestations to the contrary he was very troubled and if anyone needed absolution and the sacrament of the sick he did. That was when I tried to get advice from Fr MacAnally. I knew that there was no way he would accept sacraments from Fr Mac, but I hoped that he just might from me. After a few days, I used our incomplete game of chess as a pretext to visit him again briefly on my way to another appointment. He glared at me and expressed surprise at seeing me again. I told him that I thought that we should always keep our promises if we could. The glare turned into an expression of relief, almost a smile, and he asked what had changed my mind. I said something daft like I had heard the voice of an angel. He said that my mother was right!
"Sadly, I couldn't stay longer to follow through. That evening, I heard that he had died a few hours after my visit, so I never saw him again. I hope that he had made his peace with God. But he left me his vintage car - left the keys and instructions with the ward sister!"
"A nice story. I think most priests would have found that difficult and many would not have gone back. What gave you your solution, and ... why an angel ?"
"It just came to me. A kid had been operating a popular pirate radio station in Ballykissangel called 'Angel FM' and had asked me if it was sinful to break the radio licensing laws. I said if he was doing it for good motives and he was doing no harm then it was a matter for his conscience. That was it!"
"I can see why you got Fr MacAnally's goat! Do you still have the car?"
"Sadly, no. Fr Tim Wheen, Fr Mac's nephew, wrecked it. How I loved that car! I really felt that it symbolised my being accepted in the parish. Fortunately, the local garage owner found me an old red Ford Fiesta that was still a good runner and sold it to me for a very nominal sum. He'd just had a windfall. It got me around the parish, but I wouldn't trust it on a long journey."
"This is not for the formal record but did you at least have a regular confessor?"
"No, I went to anyone I could get - no way Fr Mac, but not regular and not frequent."
"Well, I don't approve of priests with line management responsibility acting as confessors because of the conflict of interest, but as you don't yet know anyone in Dublin I'd be happy to hear your confession if you have need?" (Peter nodded his head). Let me explore some basics."
"What is your weekly day away?"
"I didn't have one. I could take a few hours here and there for a hike or propping up the bar in the pub. (He couldn't say 'Fitzgeralds'.) A couple of times I camped overnight in the hills, watching the stars."
"Sounds fun. But he arranged for an annual retreat?"
"For himself, yes - I had to cover for him. And the other curates seem to have their own regular arrangements - I covered for them, too. But for me, no. I suppose he hoped I wouldn't be around long enough. I did have something in mind for a later this year, but the crisis blew up before I had a chance to ask him. He would've had to pay - I couldn't afford it."
"But you had your four weeks annual leave?"
"What? As I said, I took a few hours and the odd overnight here and there."
"So, when did you last see your family?"
"Getting on for three years ago, just before I left Manchester."
"So, how have you kept up with your 'buddy' group in the clergy?"
"I'm not sure that I follow you. My only 'buddy' as you call him is Fr William Russell, who was contemporary with me at Allen Hall. We were assigned to the same parish, Holy Name in Manchester and became good friends, but I have not kept up with him."
"So, did you develop some new friendships over here, people who you could be comfortable with and be yourself with, share confidences with, be frank with, people who you could trust, whose judgement you could trust, who could give you a sense of worth and of being loved and understood?"
Peter was becoming alarmed at where this was leading and became a little flustered. "I was really happy to be in Ballykissangel. I loved the place. I didn't feel the need to keep up old contacts. And I did make good friends. There was Brendan Kearney, a school teacher, Siobhan Mehigan, a veterinary surgeon, Michael Ryan, a physician, and ... er ... Assumpta Fitzgerald, the publican, Niamh Egan, the Garda's wife ..."
"But could you discuss spiritual matters with them, or problems you were having with your parish priest, or your ideas for pastoral initiatives and so on?"
"With Michael, yes, and he was always very wise and quietly supportive - he put one or two tricks over on Fr Mac on my behalf - but opportunities did not happen very often, he was a busy man, just a few words every now and then, but encouraging for all that. And Brendan, too; towards the end, he was the one who would search me out when I was running away from my problems."
"Why couldn't you afford ... He did pay you a salary, didn't he?"
"Well he told me I could take the standard stipend from the weekly collections, but that would have left nothing for running the church - the congregations are quite small. So I compromised and took about six pounds a week, less if there were church bills to pay. With the Easter and Christmas offerings and the bits of money that my family sent me for birthdays I had enough to get by.
"He shouldn't have done that. Cilldargan is a single parish and he should have pooled resources and paid his assistants properly. He lived well, had a nice car, went abroad for holidays, I suppose?"
"Yes, it seemed so. And played golf."
"Dear God! With the pressures he was putting you under and the lack of support and no breaks to recharge your batteries, I don't know how you have coped."
Peter didn't respond at first. Hugh's sympathetic interest in him and this exposure of just how badly Fr MacAnally had treated him was having an effect. In spite of the feeling of resigned defeat (and some self pity) that had enveloped him in recent months and of the long ingrained habit of bottling up his feelings, he began to feel an urge to open up, to reach out, to admit to himself that he could not go on like this, to let someone help him. Hesitantly, he began: "Perhaps the hard truth is that I haven't coped at all well, and just recently I have been barely able to function."
Hugh paused for a few seconds. This conversation was not going at all how he had anticipated. It was becoming clear to him that beneath the calm if tired exterior Peter was in a bad way. Tentatively he asked, "How do you feel in yourself?"
"Well, ..." Peter wrestled with how much to admit and how to say it. For once, the right words came to him.
"Oh Lord," thought Hugh, seeing Peter's face begin to crease up.
"To be absolutely honest with you, ... demoralised, depressed, I can't concentrate, I can't sleep, I can't pray properly, I feel a cardboard cutout of a priest, ... I am no longer ... confident of my vocation as a priest, and the commitment to chastity and celibacy seems more of a prison cage than a positive freedom to serve."
Hugh opened his mouth to speak but Peter continued.
"And the fact is that ..." Peter felt his breathing become shallow and he began to choke. Tears welled up in his eyes. He clamped his jaws together and took deep breaths in an attempt to hold back the tears, not altogether successfully, and he stared hard at the floor in front of him. When the crisis had passed, he continued, still looking down and resting his forehead on his fingertips. "The fact is that ... I fell in love, ... deeply in love. ... But after talking it through with her and after a lot of prayer and heart searching, I decided to break it off and to remain a priest. That's why I didn't fight to stay. But I am not at all sure that I made the right decision. I am certain that I caused both of us a lot of pain, and our friends too. And probably I caused some scandal to the more traditional parishioners, as well."
Gently, Hugh asked, "Why did you break off the ... relationship?"
"From her comments during the sweating statue affair it was clear to me that my faith would always be an irritant to the relationship and there was much that was important to me that we could never share."
"Did she agree?"
"Oh no, she did not! She didn't understand at all and couldn't see why I couldn't just throw off the collar."
"You could have asked for administrative leave and petitioned for laicisation?"
"But that could take years, at least until my 40th birthday or even longer, and under the present Pope might never be granted until I'm on my deathbed. And what could we do in the meantime? How could we live without my seeming to be a hypocrite? And what would become of me if it didn't work out?
"Er, did you consummate the relationship?"
"No. No, we didn't even kiss, and we weren't alone very often. Well, we did have times alone but only in places like the bar when anyone could walk in. She did respect my position."
"Well, I am so very sorry. I had absolutely no idea. I don't suppose that Fr MacAnally was too much help to you with this?"
"No." He thought of saying more, but couldn't bear to.
The two priests were silent for a minute or so, Peter looking at the floor and wiping tears from his cheeks with the heel of his hands, Hugh, his neck and face reddening, pondering what Peter had told him.
Hugh stood up and exploded: "Damn it! ... Sorry." He was temporarily lost for words and looked upset. For something to do, he poured two glasses of water from the carafe on the desk, gave one to Peter then took his across to the windows and stood for some minutes looking out, deep in thought, with his back to Peter. With a sigh, he resumed his seat by Peter.
"It makes me so angry when the older parish priests so mismanage and fail to support their young assistant priests. You are the second that Fr MacAnally has nearly lost for the Church in the last four years! I really shall have to speak to him about this. But that's not your problem any more."
He continued: "Look, with what you have been through recently and the state you are in, spiritually I mean, there is no way you can take on what the archbishop had in mind for you, working full-time with CYC, I mean, not for a while at least. I'll have to speak to the arch when he gets back to Dublin, but what I would suggest is that I tell CYC that they can have you for a couple of days a week and occasional weekends for the next six months. And I'll get you an attachment to the Pro Cathedral, for saying the odd Mass and hearing confessions for an afternoon or so a week. That should give you enough to live on.
"But you must take your weekly recreation days, rekindle interests and make new friends, and use your full annual leave allowance - you have four weeks owing to you! Take the time to visit your family and friends in England. It's essential. And I think that you should try something academic for part of the time as well. See if there is anything of interest available at Holy Cross College just across the way from here - they have a very interesting specialist in the history of the liturgy amongst others. Or you might like to try a diploma in counselling, to extend your professional skills - we'll pick up any fees, we owe you that!
"Then, I want you to get to know Sr Mary Frances; she's actually the Episcopal Vicar for Religious, so she is not responsible for priests, but she is a very warm and insightful person and she is good at helping people discern where the Spirit is leading. She is based here in Drumcondra. I'll introduce you to her. And you need a confessor. That's your choice of course, but as you don't know any of the priests hereabouts, I'd like to suggest Fr Damian Davey. He's an old man now but very wise and he's helped me and many others over the years. He's an SDS, I mean a Salvatorian Father. They have the parish of Our Lady of Victories at Sallynoggin - that's down in the south-east of Dublin. It's easy enough to get to by bus or by car. Shall I phone him for you?"
"No, I can do that. But thanks for the suggestion."
"So, how does all that sound to you?"
Peter had some difficulty taking all of this in. "OK, I think. Thank you. But I hope it won't take me six months to get back to pulling my weight"
"We'll see. Gosh! It's gone four. I must get you over to the residence. I need you to meet Fr Patrick O'Brien. He's the 'warden' of the house, so he's the guy to complain to. He'll show you your room, give you your keys and show you about. He works for the diocesan regional marriage tribunal. He's the judicial vicar, actually, so he's an interesting guy to talk to. He'll explain the arrangements for daily Mass; there's a small chapel at the house for prayer and private Masses, and there's a larger chapel for concelebrated Masses here in Archbishop's House. But once word gets about that there is a new and presentable young priest around, requests for supply will come thick and fast, not least from the convents! OK. Before we walk over, would you like me to hear your confession. I just sense that you might need the grace to reinvigorate ..."
"Yes, please, Father." Peter blew his nose, knelt on the floor and hurriedly collected his thoughts as Hugh rummaged in his jacket inside-pocket for his stole.
"In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Bless me Father for I have sinned. It's about seven months since my last confession. That's too long an interval for a start. But where to begin ...? The situation that I had allowed to develop was an occasion of sin, not exactly voluntary but one could say it was proximate, I should perhaps have removed myself from it (I just don't know). More seriously, it was pride and arrogance for me to think that I could manage without help. Maybe others should have taken the initiative but I could have and should have sought counsel and spiritual guidance. More important still, obsession with my own difficulties may have blinded me to the needs of those I was there to serve. Certainly I have caused pain and given scandal, unintended and difficult to avoid though it may have been. Certainly too I was not as regular in prayer and the Divine Office as a priest I should be, nor did I always celebrate the liturgies with the focus required. Some days I didn't say Mass unless I had to. For these and my other sins of commission or neglect I am truly sorry, and with the help of God's grace I will not sin again."
"Well thank God for the grace of a good confession. Yes, monthly or more often would be better. But on these other matters, there is nothing that I can tell you that you don't know already, except, perhaps, that you are, despite your ups and downs and recent troubles, really a very good priest. You have done good work here in Ireland ... and we need men like you. For your penance, please say a decade of the rosary for the Holy Father's intentions. Now, I'll give you absolution. God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Peter, be at peace and be confident in the love of God."
"Thank you Father," Peter said as he stood up, wobbling a little as feeling returned to his knees.
Folding up his stole and putting it back in his pocket, Hugh said cheerily, "Now let's find that rascal Paddy O'Brien". With that he put a hand behind Peter's left shoulder and pushed him gently towards the door. "Come on! Courage mon brave!"
- - - 888 - - -
After supper Peter walked across the campus a few hundred yards to Fairview Park. The sun was on the horizon, but there were still a few lads playing football on the grass and several people walking their dogs. Looking round, he thought that the tree-lined paths would be good for a morning run. With the failing sun on his right, he could see the Wicklow hills in the far distance, the peaks tinged red in the sunset. He watched the football for a while then went 'home' and up to his room.
He was too tired even to unpack properly, so he fished out his breviary, his toiletry bag and his pyjamas, cleaned his teeth, washed his face and hands, knelt on the floor for his night prayers and turned in. The bed was lumpy and unfamiliar and he lay awake, unable to sleep. His thoughts turned of course to Assumpta and to the eternal questions, "Did I do the right thing? Could I have done things differently? Was that the biggest mistake of my life?", but he tried not to dwell on her or them. After a while, he reached for his rosary beads from the bedside table and for once was soon asleep.
- - - 888 - - -
Months later, Peter learned of the aftermath of his conversation with Fr Hugh Johns. Jimmy Kilfeather, the drunk and wife-beater from Ballykissangel, had died. Through Fr Aiden O'Connell, Mairie, Jimmy's widow, had asked for Peter to conduct the requiem Mass at St Joseph's. Fr Mac had been at the service too, and he had looked daggers at Peter.
"Do you know that I was sent on two, TWO, personal development courses because of you?" he had hissed. "'The Contemporary Priesthood' and 'Mentoring Assistant Priests', of all things. And now I have to subsidise the stipends of my curates from Cilldargan funds."
"I am sorry, Father," Peter had replied, trying not to smile, but had thought, "It's a pity it was too late for me".
Peter had wondered if he might run in to Assumpta while he was in BallyK, but he did not. She was away in London, apparently. He was not sure whether he felt relief or disappointment. He was told that Niamh was running Fitzgeralds in her absence but he did not step into the bar. After the burial, he spent some time with Mairie. As he walked from the small cemetery, he exchanged news with Brendan and Siobhan. She would be having their baby soon. She seemed to be taking it all in her stride but Brendan seemed less confident.
Peter envied them. Without conscious thought, he found his way to the riverbank and wandered along the water's edge, trying to rekindle the affection that he had once felt for the place. But he could not detach his feelings for the place from his feelings for Assumpta. Now that the church would be empty, he walked back and knelt before the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in his favourite spot.
"Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy. Hail our life and our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears ..." He meditated for a while before setting off on the drive back to Dublin.
On his way out of the village, the road levelled out at the top of the hill and the gorse hedges gave way to open fields. He caught sight of some sheep grazing by the roadside and he thought of Eamon Byrne, the hill farmer. On the spur of the moment, he decided to pay a brief visit to the old man and turned off the main road. As he drove into the farm yard, he saw Eamon walking in from the fields with a spade over his shoulder. Peter got out of the car and walked over to him.
"Father Clifford, is that you? You have put on some weight!"
"It is, Eamon. That'll be the nuns. They have been fattening me up. They must think I'm a turkey. But how are you?"
Eamon's grin disappeared: "Not so well, Father."
"My new sow rolled onto three of her piglets and smothered them. I've just buried them."
"I'm sorry to hear that. But your new sow? Does that mean that you don't have ... er ... Mary anymore?"
"Oh no, Mary's fine though she's getting on a bit, like me! But Betty, the new sow, is not so careful as Mary. I'll have to make a new farrowing pen for her." He thought for a moment, then continued, "Father, could I ask you a question?"
"Yes, of course," said Peter wondering quite what he was letting himself in for.
"When you were our priest and when we thought my pigs had whatsit's disease you said that you could say a prayer over any that died. Could you ..."
Peter put an arm around Eamon's shoulder as he interrupted him with, "Of course. Where are they?"
They stood by an oak tree under which Eamon had buried his dead pigs of various generations. Peter was not quite sure of the appropriate liturgical guidelines and so said whatever came into his head. Looking at Eamon and then upwards, he raised his arms:
"Father, creator of all creatures and all things, we give thanks for the animal kingdom over which you gave Adam and Eve dominion and stewardship. We give thanks for animals that give us meat to eat and also companionship. We give thanks for the pigs that are raised on this farm and those that are buried here and ask forgiveness if any neglect on our part shortened their lives. We know that animals do not have immortal souls but we beseech you to guide us in giving the animals in our care contented lives and a painless death in the service of mankind when the time comes."
Stepping right up to Eamon and placing his right hand on his head, Peter continued: "Eamon, bow your head to receive God's blessing. Almighty God, we ask you to bless all farmers and all with authority over animals and the environment. Amen. May Almighty God bless you, Eamon, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Eamon had bowed so low that his nose was almost in contact with his knees. Peter took his hand to help him straighten up. When Eamon eventually reached the vertical, Peter could see tears streaming down his cheeks.
"Father, thank you. No priest has ever ... You couldn't expect Fr Mac ..."
Peter placed a calming hand on Eamon's shoulder. "It's OK. God wants to hear our concerns."
"But, Father, it broke our hearts. First you, then Assumpta Fitzgerald. The village is not the same ..."
Peter held up his hand in a defensive gesture and interrupted him again: "Eamon, it broke my heart to leave, but I had to go." Turning away, he walked towards his car.
Eamon, realising that he may have upset Peter, ran after him and put a hand on his arm. Peter stopped and turned and Eamon saw tears in his eyes. "Father, all will be well, all will be well. That's what my sister likes to say. She says she got it from Julian of Norwich, whoever he was."
Peter smiled and said, "Julian of Norwich was Mother Julian of Norwich, a woman, a nun, strictly speaking an anchoress, a kind of hermit. She was very influential. The saying is 'all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well'. She taught that God can bring good even out of sin."
"Well, you're an educated man and know these things. Will you stay for a drop of tea?"
Peter declined, pleading that he had to get the car back before the archbishop reported it stolen! He said his goodbyes to Eamon and promised to call again. As he rejoined the main road, he decided that he must read up on Julian of Norwich.
In Sallynoggin, May 1998
Peter had taken a number 7 bus from central bus station to Sallynoggin. Fr Damian Davey was out when Peter arrived at the presbytery, a large house next to the church of Our Lady of Victories in Pearse Street. Damian was late back from his usual daily round of sick visits in the parish.
Peter was welcomed by Brother Alf, who told him a little about Damian, who was from the Falls Road area of Belfast originally and had been (for the era) a late vocation. He had studied at the Salvatorian novitiate in Chester, England, and had spent most of his career as a teacher and headteacher also in England. He had come here to Dublin when he had retired from teaching. Between teaching appointments, he had served for a short period as a temporary Chaplain to an Army establishment in England. On a visit home, at a time when the British Army was much in evidence in Belfast, and there was a daily curfew in the area where Damian's family lived, the soldiers manning the barrier at the end of his street would not let him through, even though he was a priest and wearing clerical dress. So, he flashed his military identity pass and the squaddies not only had to let him pass but also had to salute him! After all, junior army chaplains have the honorary rank of Captain. This of course had been seen from behind curtained windows and the locals thereafter treated him as a hero. And, mischievous devil that he was, he took every opportunity he could to flash his pass at a soldier and receive a salute - a salute that he didn't have to return because he was dressed in clericals and not military uniform. The Provincial called him back to England after a few days, probably for his own safety.
Fr Damian was a short man, almost as wide as he was high, and, as few now did, he wore the full traditional Salvatorian clerical dress, a long black cassock tied at the waist with the four-knotted black cincture, and with a full fifteen-decade rosary hanging from its right hand side. There was a merry twinkle in the eyes behind the rimless spectacles, and a broad welcoming smile. Peter thought that he looked ageless. He had a slight limp, owing to a near fatal motorcycle crash thirty years earlier. "Let's go out in the garden," he said when he had introduced himself to Peter. They sat half facing each other on a bench, by Alf's roses that were already starting to bloom.
Later, the housekeeper Mollie brought a mug of coffee to Brother Alf, who was looking out of the common room window at the garden.
"They're still at it" he said. "Who is he?"
"An English priest from Wicklow who's just been moved to the Archbishop's in Dublin, at a loose end, needing a bit of guidance. Might be under a cloud."
"Hmm. They seem animated."
"I'd better take them some drinks and sandwiches" she said as she turned away towards the kitchen.
As Mollie walked across the lawn to the two men, she could see that 'animated' might be an understatement. Fr Damian was leaning towards Peter and pounding his left fist on the seat to emphasise what he was saying. Peter was a little red in the face, sitting upright and gesturing with his hands flat and upturned, then dropped his shoulders as if in submission. As she approached, she began to hear their conversation.
" ... but, why must I ... it's not reasonable!" Peter was saying with a hint of a whine in his voice.
"You made the promise, you were anointed, you have the eternal mark on your soul, you have the grace, that's why! Priesthood is not something that can be given up voluntarily. If one can go on, then one must - no choice. The Pope said it right, 'we do not return the gift once given'." He dropped his voice to a whisper as he heard Mollie approaching.
"Fathers, some sandwiches and coffee," Mollie said as she put the tray on the bench between them. "Eat up!" She walked away, straining to hear how the discussion would continue, but she heard nothing.
The men munched their sandwiches and said nothing for a few minutes. Peter wore a dejected look. Damian looked thoughtful, then taking a deep breath, smiled sympathetically.
"Peter, what I am really saying is that if you continue to focus your prayers and thinking on whether you should or should not remain a priest it will become a foregone conclusion. You must get on with being a priest. If you are being called to something else, that will become clear when the Lord is good and ready.
"What I would suggest is that you need to devote more time to prayer - one hour day is simply not enough. And you must re-assert a routine: an hour of prayer at each end of the day, your Office, Mass every day, and so on. It's easy for me, I'm a member of a community, dispersed though we are. It's harder for diocesan priests like you, particularly if you are in a solo posting, but the need is the same. You must pray, keep up a routine, not rigid but steady, foster the friendships that you have, suitable ones, and build up a network of priest friends - we all need the moral support of our brother priests. You need some people to serve too. CYC will give you that. And do go visit your family, you can serve them too and they can restore you."
Mollie and Brother Alf were again watching from the common room window.
"He's giving him a right talking to", said Mollie.
"Damian can be a hard taskmaster. I hope he isn't being too hard on the young man. I wasn't bright enough for the training to be a priest, all that Latin and philosophy! I think I'm glad in a way. All I have had to do as a brother is say my prayers, keep my vows and do the work. Priests are much more exposed and vulnerable, more so now there are fewer of them, and the world around is so hostile now ..."
"Get away with you! I don't believe a word of it! Look, he's giving absolution. They'll be finishing. Is the priest staying to lunch, do you know?"
In Dublin, making progress, June 1998
Although he had been surprised by Fr Damian's challenging line with him, Peter eventually recognised the good advice he had been given. So he had set about building himself a routine. After a few weeks, the routine had settled to rising at five, wash and dress, pray till six-fifteen, run till seven, dress for concelebrated Mass with the other priests at Archbishop's House at seven thirty, breakfast at eight fifteen, and out to work or whatever for nine. Unless he was out to a meeting or out with colleagues, he would be back at the residence by eight, pray in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament until nine, then read or watch TV until bed at ten. In the early days of this routine he was often in bed exhausted by eight-thirty! After a week or so, the tranquility that he always used to experience when at prayer began to hint at a return. Sometimes he would recite the rosary, on others meditate using the Jesus prayer, or just catch up with his Office.
The quiet, good natured camaraderie of the other priests and staff at breakfast, at lunch or round the TV in the evening was something new to him and very welcome. One or two occasionally joined him for his morning jog. The experience of concelebrating Mass was also new to him and he found it very engaging and uplifting. Somehow, with not having to 'manage' the celebration and not being the focus of a congregation's attention he felt drawn more deeply into the symbolism, the prayers and scripture extracts and much more conscious of the continuity of liturgy and worship with the early Church. Back in Holy Name parish in Manchester, even with three priests there were at least three Masses a day so that opportunities to concelebrate did not arise. On reflection, he thought it odd that he and Fr MacAnally never concelebrated; there had been several occasions, the first folk Mass for example, when Fr Mac had been present during a Mass said by Peter, but Fr Mac had sat with the people. Perhaps Fr Mac preferred the pre Vatican II days when every priest said his own Mass even if there was no congregation present.
The sense of joy and fulfilment in his work had also begun to return. And the loneliness and sense of emptiness had begun to fade, though the period at the end of the day could still be difficult, particularly if the house were quiet, when the silence could be very oppressive. He had taken to writing letters at these times, as a way of bringing family and friends to mind; but this could sometimes backfire on him - the one friend he must forget and could not write to. Brendan and Michael had written short notes to him on a couple of occasions; neither had mentioned Assumpta.
Fr Hugh Johns had suggested that Peter go to Sr Mary Frances for discernment. He had said that she had no formal responsibility for priests, but was a warm and insightful person and good at helping people. After Fr Damian Davey, another of Fr Hugh's recommendations, had given Peter a hard time, he had not sought her out. But she contacted him!
"Can I ask you a favour, Peter? I'm not of their institute but I live with the community of nuns at the convent across the Drumcondra Road. They have a regular chaplain who says Mass and hears confessions there but he is going to the USA to see his family. Would you be willing to stand in for three weeks or so? I am sure the sisters would appreciate a change, and a good looking young English priest will be something of a novelty! And they serve a much better lunch and supper there than Archbishop's house does!"
"Yes, I'd be glad to, Sister," he said. "How could I refuse?" he thought.
"And there would be opportunities for us to talk if you wish."
Peter got out his diary and they fixed some dates and times for confessions. As it turned out, he enjoyed his visits to the convent and found himself celebrating Mass for them three times a week and hearing confessions twice a week, and receiving three excellent lunches in addition to his stipend. Sr Mary Frances engaged him in conversation when opportunities arose, but he held back from sensitive topics and she had the good sense not to press him.
The day after his visit to Fr Davey at Sallynoggin, Peter had met Fr Jim Doolan, the director of Catholic Youth Care. They met at the organisation's headquarters at Arran Quay, by the River Liffey. The meeting got off to a shaky start. Somehow, Peter had gained the impression from the archbishop that provision for the youth of the archdiocese was inadequate and that it would be his role to build it up. When Peter mentioned this, there was an uncomfortable silence. In fact, CYC was a substantial operation and had a sizeable staff of lay youth workers. But Fr Jim was the only priest on the staff. CYC had to rely on local parish clergy for the sacraments and Masses. Peter was their first 'staff' priest. After Peter had recovered from his faux pas and they had worked around the initial misunderstanding, Peter had asked:
"Jim, I feel rather a fool and you must think me very arrogant. Are you sure you want me on your team?"
"Oh I most certainly do. Most of our work is in faith development and it will be wonderful to have you available to support the lay youth workers on the various programmes. You see, now we have to rely on parish clergy if we want a priest to hear confessions or say Mass or just be around, and, inevitably they are very busy and can't give us the time we would like, so there are problems of lack of continuity, lack of familiarity with our style and approach. You will change all that!"
"Well, I'll do my best."
"You have a degree in science as well as theology. Given the questions that teenagers ask these days, that will be a great asset. And I am particularly interested in the relationship talk you gave to a youth club in your previous parish. It was unusual and very forward looking of your parish priest to set it up."
Peter spluttered at this. "Er, he didn't!"
"No. Initially he was very opposed to the idea. It was the local doctor who suggested it to me after a newborn baby was left on my doorstep."
"Well, anyway, it's something that I would like you to develop further as something that we can add into our existing programmes. Also, I am keen to initiate some retreat afternoons for our courting teenagers."
"OK," said Peter with slight hesitation in his tone of voice. "What's the timescale? You know I'm not full-time yet?"
"Yes, Hugh Johns has spoken to me and I gather that the arch has confirmed the arrangements Hugh made for you. I know you have been through the mill and need time to get back to ... er ... full fitness. As it happens, the school holidays are not far away, so many of our programmes are about to take a natural break. There are the residential summer camps, of course, and if you could share with me the attendances and Masses, that will be wonderful. You might like to think about organising an astronomy-based summer camp for next summer? But in the mean time, I would like you to sit in on the two training sessions that are just coming up, just to familiarise yourself with what we do and meet some of the staff, and you could put some time into working up some sessions on relationships. I am sure that our lay staff would love to help you with that. Can I get my secretary to work out a timetable for you?"
"Yes, that would be very helpful. I'd like that."
"Then, in the autumn, when the programmes really kick off again, you should be back to a hundred percent."
"I hope so. I'm sure of it. One thing - I am thinking of starting a diploma course in Counselling in September. Will it be feasible to fit that in?"
"That will be just great. It's a skill that will help you enormously, and a professional qualification will improve our credibility with the government agencies that fund some of our work. I'm sure that we can work around any commitments you will have."
The rest of the morning was spent arranging administration details. He found that he now had a desk, a mobile phone, a personal computer and a stipend. They didn't provide a car, but he knew that he could have almost exclusive use of one of the pool cars at Archbishop's House. There was even a resource room and library that he could use for developing his talks. The plan was that he would be based at Arran Quay for one day a week, he would attend the training sessions for new lay workers also at CYC HQ, and he would be given dates to visit various parish centres to say Mass and hear confessions as part of faith development projects. He looked forward to this enormously, one more step in rebuilding his life.
He made it back to Archbishop's House, just in time to grab a quick lunch before setting off for the Pro-Cathedral, where he was to spend the afternoon on 'confessions' duty.
--- to be continued ---
Note: 1 John ch2 v27: 'But you have not lost the annointing He gave you and you do not need anyone to teach you.'