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The bad-tempered boy who was transformed by God’s grace

The story, told by Fr Michael Hollings, is one that priests must see many times in their careers

By on Friday, 8 March 2013

St Dominic Savio, a student of St John Bosco, died at the age of about 15

St Dominic Savio, a student of St John Bosco, died at the age of about 15

I blogged a few weeks ago about a talk I had attended that was given by Fr Alexander Sherbrooke of St Patrick’s, Soho Square. He mentioned that a priest who had influenced him considerably had been the late Fr Michael Hollings. By coincidence, I subsequently picked up a book written by Fr Hollings, entitled Hey You! published in 1955. In it he relates a wonderful story of the power of grace. I relate it here just to remind myself and others that despite the scandals that have been rocking the Church with depressing frequency, the latest being the downfall of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the most important work of the Church continues as it always has done throughout the centuries. This is the sacramental action of grace on the soul.

As a young priest Fr Hollings had hospital duties. In the course of these he met an Irish boy, aged 15, who was dying of cancer. The boy, who came from a slum, whose father had deserted the family and whose mother had died while he was in hospital, was frightened to die, resentful and wanting to return to his chums and his old life. Fr Hollings writes simply, “He could be rude, sulky and bad-tempered; he hated pain and did not want much to say his prayers. But, as he was incurable, it needed God’s grace to teach him to suffer and to die.”

At first this showed itself in generosity; the boy gave the priest £1, all his money, to have Mass said for his mother. He began to enquire if he could become a priest one day, despite having had one leg already amputated. Fr Hollings explained to him that “he could do priestly work by offering his sufferings each day for other people.” The boy responded by deciding not to take his pain-killing drugs, telling the priest “I have been praying for more pain so that I can offer it up.” As Hollings remarks, he was already suffering intense pain in his chest and his stomach, he was vomiting constantly, had a very swollen leg and severe bed sores. He writes, “In six months he had come from hating and resenting to accepting and offering, so that the day before he died he said, “It is a very good thing I got ill like this. I should have done much worse things had I grown up, and now I can offer the pain for what I have done wrong.”

On his last afternoon, the boy told the priest “I will pray for you in heaven.” I remind myself that this story didn’t happen to a youthful St Dominic Savio (who also died aged 15 and whose story was told by St John Bosco). Fr Hollings writes, “It happened to [this boy] because he allowed himself to open to God’s grace. He did not like suffering; he did not change from being a boy and having a boy’s faults; but he accepted and offered. He learned that he could show his prayer and his love in suffering, even when he did not understand.”

As I was reading this very moving anecdote, a story that any priest has probably witnessed many times during the course of his priestly life, I happened to be (half) listening to an interview with the pop star David Bowie that was being re-broadcast on Radio 4. Bowie was also thinking about his own mortality. The thought of leaving behind his daughter “just doubles me up in grief” he said, adding: “The aging process doesn’t faze me… it’s the death part that is a drag.” I could not help contrasting this with what I was reading. The difference between Bowie’s attitude and the young Irish boy from the slums hinges on one small thing only: openness to the love of God.

  • Acleron

    The boy had a choice? Do you seriously believe that being indoctrinated from birth, being in pain and close to death this child could resist the appalling advances of this priest?

    You claim that the Western world is corrupt. Well I’d rather have the limited secular values of this society than seeing this sick scenario repeated. It’s about time the catholic church realised that the rest of us have moved beyond your frankly quite appalling behaviour.

  • $20596475

    The contribution that Catholics make to the care of others is gladly acknowledged as is the work done in early medical research. However I don’t think that has any bearing at all on the issues raised in this case. That suffering is unavoidable does not mean that attempts need to be made to avoid it whenever possible. What the boy suffered was not unavoidable. His death might have been, but how wasn’t. For him, and the priest, to believe that something good was going to come from it, is evil masquerading as faith.

  • $20596475

    Whilst I am glad you acknowledge that the correct use of words is important I am disappointed that you then go on to distort them again. A foetus is NOT an unborn child and nor are abortions the killing of innocent children. That does not, in any way, diminish their importance, or is an attempt to soften up people. What it is is to encourage accuracy, so we can put the issue into a proper context. I want to see the need for abortions reduced to the lowest possible level, and those that have to be carried out, done safely. There will always be a demand, so making them illegal just makes them unsafe for the mothers. We need to educate to produce responsible behaviour. Just arguing for a ban, based upon emotional, inaccurate language, is achieving nothing except alienating people. Jews are people. Foetuses are not. No comparison.

  • John H. Graney

    If he is, he’s not the only one!

    “Blindly obey a hierarchy”

    I take it you’re the author of a Jack Chick tract.

  • $20596475

    I don’t think anyone really knows the answer to that. My guess would be that it depends upon the stage of development. I think though that you are still wanting to discuss abortion, whilst I am not. I am discussing terminology and it’s importance within the debate. However I think your claim that this is the most bloodthirsty, bloodstained, period of human history is complete nonsense, and another use of emotional language, which does nothing other than mask the real issues. Leaving aside all the many other human activities, which led to mass death and destruction in the past and looking solely at abortion, even this cannot be true. Abortion has always been with us. It is now away from the back street butchers, and in the hospitals. I spend time in a Catholic country where abortion is illegal. It still occurs in great numbers, but very unsafely. Many women die, quite unnecessarily.  

  • $20596475

    As I don’t believe there is a God it hardly matters, but as you think there is, maybe you might like to reflect upon this. If we are such a nasty, murderous species why did he create us like that in the first place?

  • Peter

    The secular values of this society are not merely limited, they are distorted, perverted and corrupted, calling what is evil good and what is good evil, what is virtue vice and what is vice virtue.

    According to those values, it is virtue to kill millions and let millions more die in agony, yet it is vice to allow an individual to choose how he dies.

    Everything reeks of hypocrisy, layer upon layer.  The godless feign shock and horror at an individual choosing to refuse painkillers, and yet are perfectly happy when people to choose to kill themselves.

  • lyn

    My comments have been removed. I do not know why, I was not rude and did not use hateful language. It seems that just disagreeing is reason enough to have your voice silenced!

  • Peter

    As you don’t belief in free will either, there’s no point trying to answer that question.

  • Peter

    Of course, the godless don’t need hospices; they just go to Switzerland.

  • lyn

    I agree with you, and was in the middle od a discusion with other posters when my posts were removed. I do not know why. Perhaps someone could let me know what is and is not acceptable on this comment section? Thankyou

  • Peter

    It is humans not God who feast on human suffering.  

  • Lazarus

    You’re claiming to make a simple lexicographical observation about the meaning of words, but do you have any evidence for your (supposedly) factual claims? Here, for example, is a dictionary definition which identifies a ‘baby’ as ‘an unborn child; a foetus’

    This is not just a matter of how people use words and your efforts to reduce it to that is both a sign of your fundamental antipathy to rational thought as well as your dogmatic support of anything that is opposed to Catholicism. I (and other Catholics) will rightly insist on calling a foetus an unborn child or baby because, when someone defends killing it, I want them to be reminded of the evil that they do. When you insist solely on ‘foetus’ in opposition to the dictionary, you are trying to cover up the evil of abortion. That’s fine: by all means make your case for abortion. But please stop the pretence that a substantive ethical issue on the moral status of the unborn can be settled merely by (inaccurate) use of the dictionary.

  • Peter

    What is evil masquerading as good is insisting on painkillers for the born who are not killed, while withholding painkillers from the unborn who are killed.

  • The Catholic Herald

    Hi Lyn,
    We delete any comments that denigrate other commenters in any way. For instance, a comment that described a commenter as foolish or dreadful would be removed.

  • Peter

    You call human life a foetus up to the point of birth after which you call it a child.

    Does something miraculous occur at the point of birth where the child suddenly acquires a nervous system?

    No, of course not, because it still possesses a nervous system while it is what you call a foetus.

    It is therefore disingenuous of you to claim that you don’t know if it feels pain.

    Of course it feels pain, and distress, in which case is it not barbaric to submit a human life to an agonising death?

    And, given the sheer scale of such barbaric killing, are we not in the most bloodthirsty age of human history?

  • Nesbyth

    Well why is the Duchess of Cambridge’s “bump” being referred to as her baby?

    And why are those born prematurely called babies even if not remotely full-term?

    And why, when given the ultrasound photo at 12 weeks the mother is told that here’s a photo of your baby? They do NOT say foetus. 

    And I wonder why, when one wants an abortion, the “bump” is changed to a foetus?

    Yes, I know why and so do you!

  • $20596475

    There are many different dictionary definitions but looking ONLY at the dictionary that you, no doubt, carefully selected defines a foetus thus:- “a young human being, animal, bird etc in the early stages of development before it is born or hatched.”. This is exactly the point I am trying to make and it is entirely rational. Trying to suggest that a foetus, a baby and a child are identical does the cause of seeking a reduction in the number of abortions no good at all. I am not covering anything up. I am pointing out something which seems to either be missed, or ignored, by so many Catholics.

  • $20596475

    Who is suggesting such a thing? Not me for sure.

  • $20596475

    No-one really knows do they? I don’t know anyone who retains any pre-birth cognition. Logic suggests that pain may be felt after the development of the central nervous system, which is another reason why abortion after a set period is not permitted. Yes, I have seen the emotional propaganda films which claim to “prove” this case. I have also read the reasoning as to why these claims are rejected. There have been many other more barbaric times in the past. It depends what you mean by barbaric, but even leaving out natural causes, there have been times when great numbers were killed, or maimed. 

  • Acleron

    You expect anybody to believe that the boy made a free choice?

    And it’s your religion that promotes suffering as a way to your god. This can of course justify any behaviour you like. Women living a life of poverty, ill-heath and persecution because of your policies on contraception? Well that’s OK because it’s OK for THEM to suffer.

    You lot complaining about the morals of others is laughable, you haven’t a clue of what the word is supposed to mean.

  • $20596475

    Because when the Duchess of Cambridge does give birth it WILL be her baby. Every birth, premature or not, results in a baby. When showing an ultrasound the mother is, of course, normally beyond the time limit for an abortion. She is emotionally connected to her future baby and the medical staff are merely supporting, and encouraging her, through the potentially difficult final weeks.

  • Acleron

    What is this obsession with Switzerland? Nobody is advocating that seriously ill people commit suicide, but that it remains a choice for anybody who wants it. If you don’t want to commit suicide then fine, I’ll be the first to support your choice. But you are not content with that, you want to enforce your choice on others. As in so many areas of society, you are only interested in everyone following your Bronze Age rules. It’s sad you are so far behind in your societal development because if you cannot change you will experience more and more problems.

  • Peter

    Emotion aside, either a human life feels pain or it does not, irrespective of cognition.

    And a central nervous system doesn’t just instantly appear at at certain point but develops gradually suggesting that pain can be felt at a very early stage.

    If that is the case, is pain is felt by what you call a foetus at an early stage, is it not barbaric to proceed without anaesthetics?

    And if anaesthetics are applied, does that not deem the victim a living organism with legal rights?

    So to deprive the victim of its legal rights, it is not deemed a living organism, anesthetics are not applied, and it dies in agony.

    As I said, barbaric.


  • $20596475

    No-where have I suggested that a foetus is not a living organism, only that it cannot correctly be described as a child. You might argue that it deserves the same legal rights as a child, but that is not currently the case. I would respect anyone who wishes to make that argument. To claim that an aborted foetus “dies in agony” has no basis in any known fact. It is just an assumption. 

  • Nesbyth

    The ultrasound is given at 12 weeks which is well within the abortion time limit.

  • $20596475

    There are normally several scans, to check for a variety of things at various stages of the pregnancy. That the medical staff will refer to the mother’s “baby” is a perfectly natural way to re-assure and comfort them at every stage of their pregnancy. That is, of course, what she ultimately will bear, but that isn’t the point I am trying to make.

  • Acleron

    If the child had a high tolerance to pain it makes a nonsense of the whole story.

  • Nesbyth

    Many of these posts seem not to understand how Catholics are encouraged to “offer up” their misfortunes, illnesses, pain or sadness with the purpose of sharing in the sufferings of Christ on the Cross.
    I have found that people who do understand this treatment of pain and suffering are much more able to bear that pain or misfortune.
    My father suffered considerably during his last six years and remained remarkably cheerful, offering up his sufferings to Jesus Christ on His Cross, saying it was the least he could do and believed it was a part of his particular Purgatory.
    On the other hand I now look after an elderly housebound lady who has no such faith and is therefore in a “why me?” scenario which leaves her permanently irritable, worried and susceptible to complaining about the leat bit of discomfort….(and she isn’t in anything like as much pain as many others including my father).
    I think if she had the teaching of the Church on offering up one’s suffering she would be happier and less prone to her complaining and “why me?” attitude

  • Gingangoolie

    ‘Soothing people is not the sole (sic) prerogative of religion.’

    How do you know? You’re an atheist.

    You remind me of W C Fields, a committed atheist, who read the Holy Bible on his deathbed looking for loopholes!

    Nothing changes!