‘Brian’s gone now,’ my father said. My mum and dad were lying in bed after delivering me into the hands of the Redemptorists in 1958. My father had suddenly realised that his eldest son was gone from the house and was not coming home. It would be another fifty years before my mother told me this. At 11 years of age I had gone away, one hundred miles to Birmingham, and my father had said nothing. I had wanted him to say something. I was a good runner and wanted him to say that I would stay home and join the local harriers, but my father said nothing. My mother obediently supported the priest who suggested that I leave home and begin to train to be a priest by going away to a junior seminary. I regard this going away from home at that tender age as the crucial mistake in the story of my life.
My father was a great man. He had endured the war, seeing action in North Africa, on the beaches of Normandy and in the battle of the Ardennes. He had seen what people do to each other. He had been unimpressed by many officers, impressed by some, and he knew the ways of the world. But coming home to civilian life, he placed all his trust in mum when it came to the children, and when it came to the Church he gave silent and muted respect to priests. That is why he said nothing about my going away until it had happened, and then he suddenly realised what a huge event had taken place. He had lost his eldest son, long before it was right, to the power and authority of the Church. ‘Brian has gone now.’
Here was a man who knew how to stand up for himself in the coalmining community in which he worked; who could stand up for himself in the general community in which he lived. But in certain areas of life he was, like all of us, unsure and lacking in confidence. As regards children, he placed his trust in mum, and only stepped in when called on to do so. In this, he was a man of his age. As regards Church he felt, like so many people, that he had no power at all, and when the idea was broached of his eldest son going away at 11, he was silent.
Many years later, when I left priesthood, I was reunited with my childhood friend, David. David is a total contrast to me. Where I am silent and reflective, David is talkative and engaging. Even today I love to write. David loves to talk. He goes for Skype. I go for email. Soon after I left priesthood, David invited me down for a meal at the De Vere White’s Hotel of the Reebok Stadium in Bolton. After a lovely evening and a great meal, as I was leaving with my beloved Margaret he called out to me, ‘Always say, Brian. Always say!’
These words have stayed with me ever since. David has always been a person to ‘say’. He speaks his mind. He says what he feels and he says what he thinks. Never in an aggressive or angry way, but in a straightforward, ‘let’s have a conversation’ way with people. David saw how much I had kept things to myself, just as my father had kept his true feelings to himself all those years ago when I was lured away into the Church…long, long before my time…as Johnny McEvoy would say.
In later life I became a mediator for couples separating and arguing about their children’s care. One of the great lessons I learned was that people should not be silent about how they feel, but that we all need to learn how to express in a simple way, how we feel. Do not feel that you have to attack the other in order to get your way or your view across. Learn the simple courage to say openly how you feel about any situation. The work of mediators was to encourage this kind of open and confident conversation – To overcome fears and feelings of inadequacy, and so to feel confident enough to speak for your self in the open forum of the world.
This was the power that my father felt deprived of in those days, when the power of the Church was so great. There he was, a strong man and an experienced man in so many theatres of life, who was reduced to silence simply by the fact that the Church loomed too large in its authority in those days.
In these egalitarian days, it has been the culture of mediation that has brought home to me how great it is to let people speak and to teach people how to speak well for themselves. The Church meant well, as we all so often do, but was seriously mistaken in its policy of recruiting children into its ranks of priesthood. It also had the power to silence my father, who was not an aggressive man in any way, but who found himself reduced to silence in the face of religious authority.
After the powerful character of John Paul II who calls us to witness to the Lord, and after the time of Benedict XV who teaches us so much about truth, we now have the grace of Francis who shows us in action the pastoral way of Jesus. Let us encourage one another to speak and say how we feel and not allow the often, unconscious forces of power to suppress or stifle the truth that needs to be said and heard.
Always say, Brian, Always say.