Everything in the story that follows is true, even if I have taken the trouble to disguise names and locations so that the very real people depicted will not be hailed, congratulated or abused by strangers who should not be able to connect the facts with the people involved. It is a parable, but one based on a real occurence. If you object to human pleasures such as smoking and gambling, look away now.
Fr Callaghan has been Parish Priest of the parish of the Miraculous Medal for many years. The parish serves an overspill estate in a northern city. Overspill estates were planned for the people who lived in the nineteenth century slums which disfigured our industrial cities until the 50s, 60s and 70s, when they were destroyed for the soulless new slums which replaced them. Always poor, the collapse of industry left the parishioners much poorer. Many of the men have been out of work since the 1980s, their wives on part-time jobs, and whole families live on benefits - these are the people who would not or could not get on their bikes, but their Church did not desert them.
Fr Callaghan heard his vocation in the fields of an Irish farmhouse in the early 1960s and was trained at Maynooth for the English Mission. Never really aware of how he ended up in the particular diocese, he has given his life to the people he serves. Not an intellectual, not a liturgist or a rubricist, not one for polemic, not one for ecumenism: one for visiting his flock, especially the housebound, the sick, and, in particular, the old people who are frightened to leave their houses after dark because of the violence they feel (quite rightly) is likely to be visited upon them.
Midnight Mass at Christmas is at 7.00 pm on Christmas Eve, and every pensioner will be picked up and escorted home by a bunch of men who have not got work that night as bouncers, and who will be rewarded by free beer at the local Parish Club afterwards. But Father Callaghan makes sure that the bouncers are coming to Church too, and will usually persuade them, when "interviewing" them, to confess their sins so that on that night at least, they can approach their Saviour in a state of grace.
Insofar as he has a mission, it is to the poor, and insofar as he supports organisations, he supports the SVP. Local Corporal Works of Mercy for local people: he wouldn't get the joke, and would be irritated by it, because it makes fun of subsidiarity, a word he has to have explained to him every time I mention it (and I only see him about once a year and don't always mention it) but a thing that he practices. "Nobody understands our people like we understand ourselves." Christmas hampers are personalised, and if Mr Smith likes a drink, then there will be a bottle of whiskey for him, and if Mrs Jones smokes, there will be 50 Rothmans for her. "I'm nor going to judge somebody's pleasures, especially when they can't afford to indulge them."
The SVP conference meets on Tuesdays, and one Tuesday one of the members is able to say that they have won a decent prize on the lottery syndicate they run. Nine of them, including Fr Callaghan put in 50p each week and they buy three tickets, putting the othe £1.50 into the SVP fund. They have won over £400. This is real money: nearly £50 each. The ticket holder promises to get the money in time for the next meeting.
And somebody remembers: Fr Callaghan loves horse racing and has always wanted to put on a big bet. He goes home every summer and loves hearing the stories of the hundreds of euros his brothers and cousins put on the big races, and what they've won, and, usually, what they've lost.
And as a thank you to their priest for being their priest, the Conference members decide unanimously to give all the winnings to Fr Callaghan as long as he has a single bet with it, and buys himself a cigar to smoke at the bookmaker's. He argues, they insist, he gives in and accepts the present.
Anybody who has read this far will want to know: "did he back a winner?" That's not the point of this story. This is a story about a simple priest who gave up a lot of things to serve others. One of the things he gave up was the chance to swagger into a bookie's with a large wad of cash and a Cuban cigar. And, as a thank-you, some of the people who loved him gave him the chance to do just that.