The Form: A prequel to Mr O’Leum
By Kevyn Pieters
This fanfic is non-canon. The electrocution did not happen. Following the scene by Lough Tay (“The Reckoning”) Peter told his bishop (Salford near Manchester, England) that he wished to resign from the priesthood. His appointment in Ballykissangel was terminated and he was returned to the authority of the Bishop of Salford, who placed him on administrative leave but gave him permission to continue to live in Ireland while his application for dispensation was considered in Rome.
Peter moved to Coleraine, Northern Ireland, and Assumpta later joined him. Jointly, they ran a pub, and Peter studied part-time at the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster, to gain a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, necessary for qualified teacher status in Northern Ireland.
Peter had travelled to Manchester for an interview with his bishop, the Bishop of Salford. The bishop still had responsibility for Peter and a duty of care, which he took very seriously. This was the third such interview since he had moved to Coleraine. Peter had seriously considered declining the invitation because the previous ones had not been particularly helpful and he did not look forward to going over uncomfortable ground yet again. But he was reluctant to defy his bishop.
“How are you, Father?”
“Are your studies going well?”
“I think I’m making good progress; my assessments have all been in the B+/A range and my mentor is very encouraging.”
“How much longer to go?”
“Just the final placement now, so just the summer term.”
“Good. Miss Fitzgerald, she is well?”
“Yes, blooming. Enjoying her work and the cultural life of the place. The declaration of nullity came through, which was a relief to her – defect of consent.”
“Good. But that must put some pressure on you?”
“What are your living conditions?”
Peter shifted uncomfortably; he knew where this was leading.
“We are sharing a two-bedroom flat.”
“Contrary to my advice.”
“We have separate rooms and we don’t sleep together.”
“I believe you. But that … er … separation must be increasingly difficult.”
Peter nodded uncomfortably.
“The more so because she is now free to marry?”
“Yes,” Peter sighed.
“Would it not be easier if you had separate accommodation, as I have recommended all along?”
“I couldn’t afford it – I’m a student.” But he knew as did the bishop that this was in reality just an excuse. He did not want to risk losing her.
The bishop did not want to confront him directly on this for fear of driving him away from the Church. “Well when you are employed as a teacher, in the autumn I expect, then you should be able to afford it?”
“I’ll give it some thought.” Peter did not want directly to confront the bishop any more than he did him.
“Are you continuing to receive the sacraments?”
“And you have a regular confessor?”
“Not any more.”
The bishop raised an eyebrow.
“I had to reveal that I was waiting for laicisation so that he could understand what I was saying. He told me that I could not continue to go to him, unless in an emergency, as he did not feel competent to counsel someone in my position. Frankly he sounded scared.“
“I take what opportunities that present themselves. A couple of months ago, Assumpta had to be in Dublin for an interview with the Diocesan Marriage Appeals Tribunal. I went with her. I was able to pop into the Pro Cathedral for confession.”
“Good. Have you been able to maintain your … anonymity?”
“Not quite. I used to attend Mass at the University Chaplaincy. It’s not far from the flat. This year there’s a first year student from Castle Cromartie; she recognised me. Word is gradually getting about, I think. Fr Shannon, the Chaplain, … I think he knows, but he’s not asked me outright, so I think that he is being sensitive to the position I’m in. I go to Mass somewhere further out, now.”
“Hmm. I think I know someone who can act as your confessor – he’s experienced, and won’t be ‘scared’ of you; he has to be in your part of the world from time to time.
“Can you tell me who this is?”
“I should ask him, first. He’s a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps. We were ordained in the same year, in Rome, at the English College.”
“How much longer is all this going to take? It’s 18 months, now.”
The bishop took a deep breath. “Well on that front, I have some bad news.” He reached for a manilla folder and extracted a letter. Peter couldn’t read the letter upside down, but he recognised the crossed keys of St Peter on the letterhead. “It’s a refusal, I’m afraid.” He passed the letter over to Peter.
Right Reverend Monsignor:
This Dicaster has received the request for dispensation from priestly obligations, pre sented by the Rev Peter James Clifford of your diocese.
Requests for dispensation for priests not yet 40 years of age may only be given active consideration if they go beyond the ordinary motives for defection and when grave scandal is present, such as when defects had already emerged before ordination but were not taken into serious consideration by those entrusted with formation.
An attentive study of this case has not revealed the presence of such grounds. Without these the case will not be given further consideration until the petitioner has reached 40 years of age.
Your Paternity will not fail to support the Petitioner spiritually, offering him the encouragement and the help of which he will have need.
+ Federigo, Cardinal da Montefeltro
Peter noticed the date – six weeks old.
With acute disappointment and some anger in his voice, Peter protested, “Why didn’t you tell me before? My life depends on this! Didn’t you think that it might be important to me?”
“Father, there is no need to raise your voice at me.”
“No. I’m sorry. Forgive me, please. Just it’s a shock to be turned down just like that.”
“I do realise the importance of this to you, believe me. I needed time to take advice on what might be done. I thought that I should not tell you of the letter until I had worked out what possibilities there might be.”
“Are there any?”
“Yes, essentially two.”
“The first is to return to the active priesthood. It would take a couple of years and would involve a long retreat, further study and some painstaking assessments, and we would probably have to incardinate you to a new diocese, possibly in a new English-speaking country, Canada or Australia or Malta, for example, where you and your history would not be known. This would of course involve your separating finally from Miss Fitzgerald, with no possibility whatever of marriage. A platonic relationship might in principle be permissible but I would counsel most strongly against it.”
Peter, covered his face with his hands shaking his head slowly as he whispered, despairing, “No, no, no. Not that. I can’t face that. It would break my heart … and hers. It would kill me.”
“Well the alternative, far from certain of success, would be to submit grounds that, in the words of the letter, ‘go beyond the ordinary reasons’. Some dioceses and religious orders are using a Form, more of a checklist really, to support a petition for dispensation. I have a copy here. It contains a number of questions and invites declarations on key matters.
“There are indications in the reports and documents from the then Director of Allen Hall, from your parish priests, and from your bishops that would be consistent with the declarations that the form invites you to make – the disagreement between your parents about your vocation, your difficulties in keeping a prudent distance in relationships with your female parishioners, a degree of wilfulness in disregarding the instructions of your parish priest, apparent failure to conform to canonical requirements in matters of dress, of accommodation, in the administration of the sacraments. These are all minor matters in themselves, but they could be interpreted in the way I have suggested – and they are already matters of record.
“But, understand this clearly, Father: I am not encouraging you to lie or to exaggerate. Far from it. However, if you feel that you can truthfully answer some or all of the questions in the affirmative and sign the form in good conscience, then more likely than not, the Vatican department will agree to consider your case without waiting until you are 40, and just possibly to recommend a dispensation to the Holy Father.”
He passed a copy of the Form to Peter, who gasped as he speed-read it.
For use with petitions for dispensation from priestly obligations (secular priests)
Name of priest Rev ………………….. Diocese of ………………………
1. How old were you when you commenced training for the priesthood (senior seminary)?
2(a). Did you freely embark on priestly training or were you influenced by others to do so?
2(b) If you were influenced by others, who were they?
3. What was your parents' attitude to your training for the priesthood?
4. Prior to your ordination (major orders), did you know the obligations flowing from that ordination and from the law of celibacy?
5. Prior to your entrance into the seminary and during your years of priestly formation, did you exper ience difficulties regarding chastity?
6. Are these same difficulties leading you to petition for laicisation and a dispensation from your priestly obligations and the law of celibacy?
7(a) Were you doubtful about your vocation during your years of formation?
7(b) If that is so, around what did these vocational doubts centre?
7(c) Do you feel that you took adequate means to overcome these doubts at that time?
8. After you were ordained, were you or are you troubled by moral problems relating to the obligation of perfect chastity and the law of celibacy?
9(a) Do you or did you experience any problems with drinking?
9(b) Are you an alcoholic?
10. Have you suffered from any emotional disturbance or mental illness? If so, please specify.
11(a) Have you contacted any doctor or psychologist or professional counsellor about your decision to leave the priesthood and religious life?
11(b) If so, do you have a document or statement from him/her regarding this decision or will you sign a document releasing him/her from the obligation of professional secrecy and authorising him to make such a statement in support of your petition?
Signed (Petitioner) ………………………………….... Date ……………..
Countersignature (Ordinary) ……………………………… Date ……………..
“So, if I am mad or bad they will release me. But if I have been conscientious but am unable to continue any longer, they will not!”
Bishop looked embarrassed but said, “That’s about it. As His Holiness has said, ‘We do not return the gift once given.’
“Peter, my son. I do understand. Better, perhaps than you might think. But this is the best I can do. I’d like you to take the form home and think and pray about it. Send the form back to me in a couple of weeks. If you cannot sign it, then I shall see what else I can do. In any event, I can re-submit another petition and stress … your inability to return to active priesthood, your suffering, your moral danger, and the now severe risk of scandal to the faithful as your circumstances are becoming known despite your best efforts and discretion. But what success a second petition will meet with, I cannot say, though I am pessimistic given the complete rejection of the first one. In all probability, they will refuse to examine your case for another seven years, and even then there is no certainty. I fear that unless there is a radical change of policy in Rome there is little chance, and I cannot see that happening in this pontificate or the likely next. “
- - - xxx - - -
Peter had just returned from Manchester, and was sitting gloomily in the dark.
Assumpta returned. “Where were you? I thought you were coming in to help when you got back.”
“I’ve not been back long.”
“How did you get on?”
He was reluctant to talk about the interview. “No progress.”
“What do you mean?”
“My petition was refused; they won’t consider it until I’m over 40. I have another form to fill in.”
“How does that leave us?”
Peter looked at the floor. “As before.”
“Is this the new form?” She picked it up from the table, and read it, slowly. “So, you’re going to say that you have got mental health problems, you’re alcoholic and you have moral problems.”
Peter winced. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“What’s the form for?”
“To get them to consider my case now, not wait. But I can’t …”
“I can’t in all honesty sign it.”
“Why ever not?”
“Because it would be lying.”
“It wouldn’t be right.”
“And the barbaric way they’re treating you is right?”
He had no answer to that. He broke eye contact and closed his eyes.
“Did the bishop give you any other options?”
“Oh yeah, return to the priesthood with an overseas posting!”
“Well, Father, perhaps you should consider doing just that.” Assumpta picked up her cocoa, huffed into her bedroom and slammed the door closed.
Later, passing Assumpta’s room on the way to his own, he heard Assumpta crying. He put his hand on the door handle, but thought he had better not go in, even to console her. He spent a sleepless and miserable night.
- - - xxx - - -
With a heavy heart, Peter returned the form to his bishop, blank, knowing full well that in so doing he was rejecting the best prospect of being released from the obligation to celibacy. But what, he thought, was the point of a dispensation enabling him to remain in good standing with the Church if that dispensation were founded on lies? He had not dared spell out such scruples to Assumpta.
Ten days later, he was in the kitchen in his dressing gown drinking an early mug of tea when a letter dropped onto the doormat. It was another letter from the Bishop with a second petition for him to sign. The letter advised him that recent advice from a discreet contact in Rome was that he is most unlikely to be successful, and therefore the Bishop is obliged to confirm in writing his previous recommendation that Peter separate finally from Assumpta and take steps to be returned to the active ministry.
Assumpta heard a shout and a crash from the kitchen. She leapt out of bed and rushed into the kitchen, without pausing to put on her dressing gown, something that Peter was so particular about.
Peter was sitting on the floor surrounded by milk and fragments of glass and crockery, having kicked over the table in a fit of rage. He held out the dripping letter to her
“He wants me to leave you and to return to being a priest”, he half shouted, half cried.
Recovering quickly from the shock of being awoken and of the scene before her, she looked at him calmly, arms folded: “Well I guess you are going to have to make up your mind then, and about time too.”
Peter flinched and looked away.
“Why bother with dispensation?”
“Without it, if we marry, I’m excommunicated, I lose my line to God.”
“So, let’s not get married.”
She shrugged and changed the subject. “Is there any milk left for my cup of tea?”
“Sorry, no. I’ll go to the shop before I leave for work.”
She reached into the cupboard for the dustpan and brush and started to clean up the mess on the floor.
“Can you pick up the table and chairs?
Peter picked up the table and chairs and put the chairs on the table to keep the floor clear. He stood by the window looking out at the River Bann in the distance.
As she tipped the broken glass into the kitchen bin and rinsed the mop under the tap, she said, “You had better take off your slippers and dressing gown, I can see the glass fragments on them from here. And I’ll need to rinse the milk out or you’ll smell like a drain.”
Obediently, he undid the cord and slipped off the dressing gown and kicked off his slippers. She picked up his slippers and took the offered dressing gown and put them by the sink.
Peter walked towards the door, intending to shave and get dressed for work. He yelped as he trod on a glass splinter that had wedged in a crack between floor tiles.
Assumpta looked round and saw him, swaying, standing on one leg as he tried to examine his bleeding foot. She dried her hands and grabbed the first aid kit from the wall.
“Lean on my shoulders” she said as he swayed, while she crouched, removed the splinter with tweezers, swabbed the cut with a wipe and applied a dressing.
Gingerly, he put the injured foot on the floor and tried putting some weight on it.
“Ooh,” he muttered as he thought better of it and began to hop towards his room, keeping one hand on the wall for support.
“Come on,” she said as she pulled his left arm around her neck and guided him to his room.
They were both very late for work that morning.
- - - xxx - - -
Three years later
Peter was reluctantly making another visit to his bishop in Salford. Since receiving the letter advising that he separate from Assumpta and take steps to be returned to active ministry, he had declined invitations to visit. But this time the bishop had insisted. The threat had not been explicit, but Peter could read well enough between the lines: if Peter would not submit to his bishop’s authority to the extent of pastoral visits when requested, then the bishop could not honestly continue to promote his case for dispensation.
“How are you Father?”
“I’m OK, thank you, My Lord.”
The bishop did not think that he looked at all well: he had lost weight, and he looked drawn and ill at ease.
“How are you finding the job?”
Peter lied. “I’m really enjoying it.”
“That’s good to hear. Miss Fitzgerald, she is well?”
“Yes, she is very well.” Not the whole truth.
“You have your own flat now?
“No. I decided to continue the flat share. But we have a bigger flat, now”
“You are living as brother and sister?”
Peter nodded. A big lie.
“Are you continuing to receive the sacraments?”
Peter nodded again. Another one.
The bishop looked thoughtful, then coming to a decision, said, “I have some correspondence I must show you.”
He removed some papers from an envelope and placed them in front of Peter. They were certified copies of the entries in the Register of Births from Coleraine for Peter’s and Assumpta’s two children, and a certified copy of their Marriage Certificate recording their civil marriage.
Peter blushed intensely. “I … I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t seek these out, you understand? They were sent to me, unsolicited, by a parish priest in Londonderry.”
“It was bound to happen, I suppose.”
“Why, Father? You realise that you are excommunicated? La…”
“Latae sententiae. Yes, I know. I’m not really receiving the sacraments, though I still go to Mass regularly.”
“Have you no explanation for me?”
“I felt betrayed. That wretched form - I couldn’t lie. When I had your letter saying that the prospects were nil and advising me to leave Assumpta and return, I felt really betrayed. I felt you had pulled the rug from under me. Then, I had an accident in the flat. Assumpta had to give me first aid. In the emergency, we forgot about our ‘house rules’ about modest dress – we were both in our night clothes, and one thing led to another.”
The bishop tried to sound hopeful. “Well. Are you happy? The two of you?”
Peter looked up, and the bishop saw the despair in his eyes. “At first we were. It seemed the best thing. I was ecstatic when the children came along. But gradually, everything has fallen apart … How do I overcome the excommunication?”
“Well, dispensation is not going to happen anytime soon. You have blown that. I know it’s the practice of some other dioceses to require as a first step that the marriage be dissolved.”
“Divorce, you mean?”
“Yes. But that doesn’t seem to be quite right – it amounts to encouraging adultery. No, if you want the excommunication lifted, then you must solemnly promise to resume living as brother and sister.”
Peter just looked incredulous. “Do you know what you are asking?”
“Until dispensation is granted.”
“Whenever that is,” Peter said bitterly.
“As you say.”
- - - xxx - - -
Assumpta let herself into the flat. It was late.
First she looked into the children’s room. Both were soundly asleep. She kissed each and tucked them in. Seeing the living room empty, she looked for Peter in their room, but the bed was empty. She found Peter in bed in the spare room. She took off her shoes and cardigan and sat on the bed. Peter wriggled out of the way.
“How did you get on with the bishop?”
“He knows.” Peter swung his legs over the side and sat up.
“I gave him my undertaking that we would resume living as brother and sister.”
“You did what?!”
“I need the sacraments.”
Assumpta glared at him and he flinched expecting a slap, but she just crumbled and shuffled out of the room.
- - - xxx - - -
Three weeks later, Peter arrived back from visiting his brothers in Manchester to a cold and empty flat.
He found a note on the kitchen table: “Gone to Canada. Sorry. I couldn’t take any more. Brendan Kearney has a phone number if you need it. “
- - - xxx - - -
The bishop looked at the envelope addressed to Mr P J Clifford, but overstamped “Not known at this address. Return to sender.” A letter from the parish priest at St Malachy’s told him only a little more: The flat had been re-let, Peter Clifford was no longer on the staff of the DH Christie School, the Clifford children had been withdrawn from Killowen Primary School, the reason recorded being ‘emigration’. He added a note to the file: ‘Status and whereabouts unknown. Last known location: Coleraine, NI.’
The text of the letter “Right Reverend Monsignor” and the text of the form derive from “Shattered Vows: Exodus from the Priesthood” by David Rice (Michael Joseph, London 1990) © David Rice, and the Advent Group (UK) website.
Kieran Prendiville and his creation of the wonderful village of BallyK and its priests and people are gratefully acknowledged as is the copyright of BBC and World Productions.