IT WAS exactly 125 years ago that the Catholic Hierarchy was restored to England and Wales in circumstances that mae it seem to many like an act of "Papal Aggression." The first Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Dr Nicholas Wiseman, afterwards realised that he had been the inadvertent cause of the misunderstanding and subsequent riots — the worst since the days of Gordon — on Guy Fawkes Night, 1850.
The seemingly grand language in which Cardinal Wiseman — in his famous Pastoral Letter "from the Flaminian Gate" — proclaimed the extent of the new dioceses was in fact unnecessary. A more inconspicuous transition from de facto to official Catholic jurisdiction over agreed English and Welsh Catholic dioceses would have ruffled fewer feathers at all levels, including that of the Sovereign herself.
The lesson proved a useful one for Cardinal Wiseman and all of his successors at Westminster. It taught, basically, that hearts are not to be won by resonant pronouncements, but rather by actions which compel respect through first attracting understanding and love. Wiseman won many hearts in this way before his more dominating successor, Henry Manning, endeared himself to all classes, if sometimes at the expense of over-ruthless action toward some individuals. More lessons were thus being learned as the reign of Cardinal Vaughan took us into another century, with Westminster Cathedral as a new symbol of confidence and devotion.
Enormous increases in our Catholic population with the flow of men and women from Ireland produced a new concept of the "Anglo-Irish" social phenomenon. Cardinal Bourne's long reign strove to consolidate: and in the mid-thirties a new breakthrough seemed imminent with the arrival at Westminster of the man so much admired by Churchill, Arthur Hinsley. The war confounded many plans, and the subsequent Griffin era was overshadowed by illness, leaving the lovable but ageing Cardinal Godfrey insufficient time, to say nothing of the calling of the Vatican Council, to make a penetrating impact at Westminster. The mantle inherited by Cardinal John Carmel Heenan in 1963 was thus a heavy one. For though Westminster is not a Primatial See, its Ordinary is taken to be head of the Hierarchy and — which is nowadays of vital importance — seen by the world outside as chief "spokesman" for Catholic affairs in this country. The speed and dynamism with which the new Archbishop moved at Westminster astonished only those who knew little of the once still waters that had been stirred so decisively by Archbishop Heenan in Leeds and Liverpool.
The backlog in marriage cases awaiting decision is only one example of the many areas in which the new Cardinal requested and received prompt action. It soon became apparent that much could rightfully be demanded by a man who spared himself nothing in the way of labour and slavery to detail.
It was thus that Archbishop House, Westminster, throughout the rest of the sixties, and into the seventies, became a power house of activity and inspiration. A prodigious volume of work, with the Cardinal as its fountainhead, began to be attempted and accomplished. It is safe to say that Cardinal Heenan would be alive still had he put his own health and his comfort first. But his caution was never exercised for his own benefit.
New bridges were built in the directions of Canterbury, the Free Churches and Britain's Jewish communities. An entirely new atmosphere — and a very exciting one — became widely recognised. More might well have been accomplished in such directions had Cardinal Heenan not had to face, as far as his own jurisdiction was concerned, the same problems as those faced by Pope Paul on a world scale.
A Church in painful but necessary tradition needed leadership that was firm but also truly understanding of the infinitely varied problems that were now being thrown up and could neither be ignored nor given platitudinous answers.
To safeguard essentials while seeking progress and justice in conformity with his own highly developed sense of compassion meant disappointing some people. The Cardinal, however, even when under heavy fire, always confronted every problem face to face, and person to person. His moral courage, itself an inspiration to those who mourn his loss, was the characteristic that stuck in thousands of minds long after individual issues had come and gone. Such courage would surely not have been vouchsafed in such abundance to a man not so ingrained in daily prayer and meditation as John Carmel Heenan.