I made an examination of conscience last night. I scrolled back through the years to try to assess whether I have been a good human being and a good priest.
It was prompted by a programme on the BBC about Jimmy Saville, and the appalling impact sexual abuse has on its victims. The documentary showed footage of Saville’s almost state-like funeral, with mourning crowds lining the streets and a church full of robed clergy and solemn dignitaries listening to eulogies that were fulsome in their praise of the legendary ‘entertainer’. And then we were introduced to some of the women who had been abused by Saville, and whose lives have been destroyed by him. Their pain and anger still rage, as does their bitter disappointment that he was never made to account for his crimes while he was still alive. His victims would never have their day in court.
I was left wondering how Saville, a regular churchgoer, must have felt about himself and his crimes as his end drew near. Did he feel any remorse? Did he have any sense of the devastation he had caused to so many people? All the lives he had ruined? All the innocence and innocents he had destroyed? How tormented was he by his actions or was he tormented at all? Did he worry about judgement day?
It put me thinking about my own life and my deeds and misdeeds. I had a happy childhood and a pleasant experience of school. I don’t think I hurt anyone, at least to any serious degree, by anything I said or did in my youth. Same with my college and seminary days. Yes, I was difficult to live with sometimes. Yes, I could be moody and I definitely upset people more than once by my words and actions (I remember being rebuked by my formator for having dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies!) but I never hurt anyone deeply or damaged anyone beyond repair.
And I think the same is true of my life as a clergyman. I can recall four or five occasions when people were hurt or offended by something I said in a homily or mission sermon, but it was always due to poor use of language or lack of sensitivity on my part rather than a deliberate attempt by me to cause offense.
I can recall a lot of phone calls and letters over the years from people angry at something I wrote or published. Some of them were angry enough to report me to Rome and get me in trouble with the Vatican. While I know I could have formulated some of my pronouncements more carefully, I also know that anything I ever wrote or published was out of love for the church and without malicious intent.
I think back on my ministry in the confessional and in one-to-one encounters with people, and while I might have lost patience with a few people over the years, I always tried to put mercy before cold adherence to the letter of the law.
I have been far from the perfect priest. I have struggled with keeping all four of my vows, I have let my anger at the institutional church get the better of me at times, I have struggled to forgive, to pray and to love unconditionally. I certainly haven’t always practiced what I preached, but I can say that I have not irreparably damaged anyone or destroyed a life. When my time comes, I think I can face my maker with reasonable confidence on that score at least.