TV and the Sacramental Life

Father Michael Kerrigan (Sean Bean) preaches one of his edgy homilies. | BBC

Created and written by Jimmy McGovern

Review by Douglas LeBlanc

In Broken, the protagonist is a tormented Roman Catholic priest depicted by Sean Bean, who played the mighty warrior Boromir in the Lord of the Rings films. The conflicts in Broken do not rely on computer-generated violence, but they feel just as fraught and emotionally draining as Peter Jackson’s films.

Father Michael Kerrigan presides at St. Nick’s, a gothic beauty of a church in an unspecified city of northern England. (It appears from the portside windmill farm that location filming was in Liverpool.) Kerrigan’s dilemma is that every time he prays at the consecration of the bread and wine of the Mass, he is tormented by memories of those he has sinned against and those who sinned against him. The latter category consists of his shame-mongering mother, a sadistic priest who taught at his parochial school, a pedophile priest who taught at the same school, and a senior priest who disregarded young Michael’s protests about being molested.

Despite all this, Kerrigan has found his way back to his childhood faith, even to the point of ordination. In one of the most beautiful passages within a series sprinkled generously with great writing, he describes recapturing his faith by seeing a falcon return to his patient falconer after many hours away. In Kerrigan’s experience, God was not the falconer but the falcon, who does not show up on our schedule but arrives nevertheless.

The 20th-century satirist John Mortimer, primarily in his series Rumpole of the Bailey, often poked fun at what he called “the helping professions,” including both social workers and priests. Kerrigan fits that image, in that so much of his time is consumed in helping people through crises of soul-crushing proportions. When one character, Roz Demichelis, appears from the shadows and announces blithely that she intends to kill herself, it feels less like a plot twist than another of Kerrigan’s stupendous rounds in the confessional.

Kerrigan offers more than non-directive counseling, however. He gives advice, sometimes with traumatic results for his parishioners. Still, he is persistent, stands with his people as fully as he is able, and tries to offer them tangible ways through their moral dilemmas. He is quick to lead his people toward prayer, whether those memorized by faithful Christians or spontaneous prayers of few words that identify a person’s dilemma and ask God to intervene. One of his fellow priests and a mentor, Peter Flaherty, offers a similar prayer toward the end of the series: “This is Michael Kerrigan, Lord, he’s a good priest. He’s quick to forgive others, slow to forgive himself. Grant him peace, Lord. Amen.”

Father Kerrigan ultimately is better at pastoral care than at theology or staying on focus in his preaching. His homiletical style draws so much from his daily experience that it would likely drive away most parishioners who find themselves mentioned by name as examples of godliness or alluded to as examples of falling short. While dealing with the saintly mother of a young man shot to death by the police, he rants about Catholic priests’ supposed fear of women’s bodies or of “seeing menstrual blood at the altar.”

Despite several telegraphed messages by series creator Jimmy McGovern, Broken resonates because its hero so clearly loves the parishioners in his spiritual care, and they love him. He is more than just a social worker in a collar because he speaks of God and the creed and the afterlife without a trace of postmodernist distancing. While Kerrigan believes his heart is slow to reflect it, he extends forgiveness, grace, and comfort to his dying mother.

Broken succeeds visually because its cinematographers soak in the lush architectural details of St. Nick’s. From the classical stained glass to the carved reredos and the beauty of a nave at night, St. Nick’s is the visual true north of the series, a place far more of succor than of torment. Each time Kerrigan opens the towering doors of the parish, we are primed to see a servant of Christ begin a new day of costly ministry.

It is not so unusual for network television to show a priest at work among the suffering. What is breathtaking is a series that depicts the sacramental life with such clear affection and respect.

It is difficult to make it through the six hours of Broken without thinking that priests are gluttons for suffering — or truly called to it by a redeemer whose love for fallen people took him all the way to the cross.


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