Sarah Freeman: Confession time: How Sean Bean restored my faith

Sean Bean played Father Michael Kerrigan in the BBC drama Broken.
Sean Bean played Father Michael Kerrigan in the BBC drama Broken.
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AS a Catholic you develop a sixth sense for spotting fellow left-footers.

Even those that hide it best eventually let it slip. There will be a mention of where they went to school, which always includes a saint’s name, or talk of how they spent summer holidays in Ireland as a kid – no one in our class ever came back in September with a sun tan.

And from there on in there is an unspoken bond. Only a Catholic knows the quiet agony of the Palm Sunday gospel. Only a Catholic knows how to recite The Lord is My Shepherd. Backwards. Only a Catholic, even one whose church attendance has been erratic, will still insist on eating fish on a Good Friday. It’s our way of keeping in with the big man upstairs.

Truth is, being a Catholic has become a bit of a secret society, something only talked about in hushed tones with those who know just how hard it is to clean a blackened, smudgy forehead on Ash Wednesday.

The furtiveness is with good reason. The sex abuse scandal has been corrosive ­– and no retrospective apologising can right the wrong. And it’s not the only thing that make some of us brought up in the faith shift uncomfortably in our pews. There is its attitude to same-sex relationships, there is its absolute and immovable views on abortion and, if you have ever walked through the Vatican museum, and seen the obscene amount of riches belonging to a church which professes that the “meek shall inherit the Earth”, it all feels well, a little embarrassing.

It was why the new incumbent in Rome was such a welcome appointment. A man who practises the humility and care for society’s most vulnerable so many others preach about. It was he who set up a committee to pursue the church’s child abuse cases, who spends evenings helping the homeless sleeping rough on the Italian capital’s streets and who did the best ever non-plussed face after meeting Donald Trump.

Suddenly things started to look a little brighter for Catholics everywhere and now, after Francis, comes Sean Bean. Yes, that Sean Bean. It turns out that the actor who has brought a great hunking slice of Sheffield to every role he has ever played might just be the best priest the Catholic Church never had.

If you didn’t watch Broken, the six-part drama by kitchen sink specialist Jimmy McGovern, download it on iPlayer now and prepare for a conversion. By episode four I was Googling times of confession at my local church and, as the final credits rolled, I had to stop myself doing a quick genuflection and sign of the cross.

Bean is more Sean Bean than he has ever been, but not only does he carry off a dog collar, his portrayal of the funny, virtuous, self-doubting and slightly tortured Father Michael Kerrigan was also a brilliant study of what a Catholic priest should be ­– and they so often are.

McGovern might have swapped his own faith for girls and football, but he knows what he’s talking about. The wake scene in the final episode could only have been written by a Catholic, lapsed or otherwise. It wasn’t until I went to a Church of England funeral that I realised what sombre – and sober – occasions these generally are.

But McGovern’s real triumph though is in bringing Father Kerrigan to the small screen, not just as a priest but as a man. He’s a man one who recognises that aligning a moral compass is not easy for those reliant on food banks, in the grip of addiction or just trying to do their best for their families in a society which doesn’t care.

He is a man whose own mother is dying, who is morally imperfect and who is struggling with his own guilt about the boy he could have saved but didn’t and the woman he failed to persuade her life was worth living.

Ah yes, the guilt. That’s the other way to spot a Catholic.

Broken’s hallelujah moment came in the penultimate episode when Father Kerrigan was talking to a fellow priest about the thorny issue of sex: “Ignore everything the Church says about sex. I do that. Every priest I know does that.”

And there you have it. So yes, when I think about the Catholic church I grew up in I do think about the nuns I encountered, many of whom had a tendency towards casual violence, and the Irish priest who, whenever he said “peace be with you”, made it deliberately terrifying.

But there are other things too. I think of the day my dad died, and that same priest was one of the first to come round the house. I can’t remember what he said, but it was his presence rather than the words which mattered.

These days I go to Mass infrequently, but I am still tied to Catholicism with a piece of elastic. For that I am grateful, because there have been times when church has given me the kind of quiet you just don’t get by turning the television down.

Faith is a very personal thing and for someone who also believes in the wonders of science it’s also hard, impossible even, to explain. But it’s there, I’m not sure I could fully erase it even if I wanted to, but thanks Sean Bean and thanks Jimmy McGovern, this morning it just feels that little bit brighter to be a Catholic.