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

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.