All My Favorite People Are Broken

The title comes from a song by Over the Rhine. I appreciate the sentiment. I like the idea theoretically. It makes for a compelling vision of the world and of humanity, as well as of our place among the broken. More than that, it recognizes that there isn’t any kind of people other than broken. Everyone is messed up in some way, or multiple ways.

Not that Over the Rhine is doing this, but there can also be a sort of romanticizing of brokenness,  perhaps in terms of creativity or artistic endeavor (“my favorite people”). Certain forms of brokenness (do we mean sin or depravity?) lead to better or more significant works of art. Without denying that creativity can and often does proceed from either wounds or processes of healing, there is no necessary connection between our favorite kinds of brokenness and artistic fruitfulness.

A romanticizing of broken or hurting people is easy until one is confronted with the possibility of having to actually bear one another’s burdens. If poetry proceeds (as the lyrics of “All My Favorite People” seem to proceed) from the encounter with broken people, whose tender hearts have been ripped wide open by the world, that is one thing. It is something else when naive or inexperienced poetry collides with the rough prose of actual life with real people.

In the heady days of theological education, or in the imagination of the seminarian or young pastor, it is easy to romanticize pastoral engagement with people who are dealing with all manner of complex theological and spiritual problems. (One thing the pastor quickly learns, though, is that most of people’s problems, although they are at root spiritual, are expressed in complaints about the most superficial and petty topics. Though those complaints likely hide a deeper spiritual issue, that issue is often hard to identify and diagnose.)

There’s nothing particularly romantic, however, about real people in the real world. Showing that is what (to get to the point) the series Broken does best (2017; streaming on Amazon Prime, for free with a seven-day trial of Britbox). Sean Bean plays a priest, Michael Kerrigan, who is plagued by guilt and shame, especially in the form of flashbacks that come precisely at the moment of consecration in the mass.

Over the course of six episodes, he deals with four main characters and their problems, most of which do not have solutions. There is the single mother, Christina (Anna Friel), who borrows money from her business’s till and that, combined with her being late as a result of a meeting for her daughter’s first communion, leads to her being fired, which in turn leads to her collecting her mother’s pension even after she’s dead. There is the woman, Roz (Paula Malcomson), who shows up to confession, but only to tell Father Michael that she is going to commit suicide, because she has embezzled money from her boss over several years. There is another single mother, Helen (Muna Otaru), whose mentally ill son returns home from a facility, which leads to tragedy. Connected to that is the police officer, Andrew (Mark Stanley), who has to decide whether his job or the truth is more necessary. As Father Michael deals with these various people and their lives, broken to one degree or another, he is forced to confront his own past more and more, especially with respect to his own mother, who is dying.

He is definitely not a traditionalist priest: he wants people to call him simply “Michael;” his confessional is open, so that the priest and the penitent face one another; he preaches (in perhaps the most unlikely scene in the show) that women should be priests, bishops, and the pope; he doesn’t—along with all the priests he knows, he says—believe the Roman Church’s teaching on sex, marriage, and contraception; he prefers, at times, to give a general absolution at the beginning of the mass, rather than require individual confession before receiving the Sacrament. I’ll leave those issues to the Roman Catholics. But that point about the confession (really, a confiteor) at the beginning of the mass becomes central to the story, and it is repeated over and over again, probably in every episode. “Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins and prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries,” etc. It is that part about “acknowledging our sins” that occupies a central place in Father Michael’s struggles, both to come to terms with his own past, as well as to help others in their struggles.

Father Michael’s guilt comes, in large part, because he thinks he is not worthy to be a priest. This is why, he thinks, the worst flashbacks occur during the consecration, the highest point of the priesthood. He confesses (in a more general sense) this to another priest (a bishop? I think I saw a violet clerical shirt), Father Peter (Adrian Dunbar)—not his confessor, I think, since he’s never shown confessing to him. Peter is, rather, more like a friend and counselor. I wanted Peter to tell Michael that of course he’s not worthy to be a priest. Who could be? Instead, he tells him that he’s heard the same thing from other priests, about struggles during the consecration. Not much comfort in that.

In addition to his feelings of unworthiness, he also tells Roz at one point that the reason he became a priest was so that he could atone for his past guilt and sins against others. I would think, to understate it, that would be what Jesus is for. While I don’t know how actual Roman Catholic priests would hear that scene, there does seem to be a clear Roman/Lutheran (Protestant) divide here. This is, in fact, part of Michael’s problem: he can’t actually give these people the answers they want or the help they need, and that leaves his guilt unatoned for. Beside that, more than once he acts contrary to his own desires and to what people need from him (especially at a pivotal point for Helen Oyenuse and her son Vernon), which only adds to his guilt.

Aside from the theological issues, there are several very effective moments throughout the series. Andrew, the police officer, tells Michael that he’s decided to act contrary to his conscience in order to provide for his wife and newborn child. And yet, Andrew shows up at the next mass to receive the Sacrament. Afterward, Andrew asks Michael why he gave him the Sacrament. Michael says, “Why did you come up to receive?” Andrew says “I never needed it more.” And Michael responds, “That’s why I gave it to you.”

Another underlying theme that runs throughout is something that Roz tells Michael at one point. She could perhaps live with guilt, but she doesn’t really feel guilty. The larger problem is her shame. She tells him that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is only before your own eyes; shame, on the other hand, is in front of everyone’s eyes. That is what she cannot live with.

In the final scene, there is a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation that revolves around the receiving of the Sacrament, which is a pretty good image of the horizontal love and working-out of the mercy that flows vertically from God in Christ to us. (I won’t spoil it, because it is powerful.)

While the series is, understandably, tinted by the focus on penance and atonement for the temporal consequences of sin, it does a good job (owing mostly to the excellent writing and acting) of displaying the tangled difficulties of sinners dealing with sinners, and how regrets and mistakes affect the pastoral ministry to and among broken people. It is a heavy drama, but worth watching if anything I mentioned sounds intriguing to you.

All my favorite people are broken, it is true, but there’s nothing romantic about it.