By GERARD NOEL
Editorial Director of the Catholic Herald
FOR ME there was in a sense no such person as "His Eminence Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster." There was, however, at seaside holidays in Frinton in the thirties, a shadowy background figure in black who was tall, bespectacled and thin, full of fun and friendliness and had wavy brown hair. He was my uncle's best friend and he was then, and ever remained, "Father John."
The sixth successor of Cardinal Wiseman at Westminster raised this Archbishopric to a greater height of prestige in the nation at large than any of his predecessors, not excluding the redoubtable, Manning.
This was a very great achievement and it came about without the man himselfs losing a jot or tittle of the characteristic that belonged, to the very end, to the friendly and fun-loving "Father John."
Just over a month ago I sat with him at Archbishop's House in the company of Cabinet Ministers from a Middle Eastern country. As 1, at Father John's request, poured out China or Indian tea as required, I had time, as the two men talked, to reflect.
The Sacred Purple had fallen lightly on the lean shoulders of that young priest of the thirties who, during those formative years had reaped such fruitful harvests in his East End parish: "lightly" in the sense that they had neither weighed down the eternally youthful spirit, nor formed, as sometimes happens, heavy superstructure of protective ecclesiastic habilament.
It was his early influence, unconsciously given and subconsciously imbibed, that implanted a lifelong attachment to certain beliefs. One of these was that no day was complete without attending Mass and saying the Rosary. Cardinal Heenan was a marvellous man to whom to confess one's sins. Once, he confessed one of his to me!
Don't get me wrong. When visiting him on one occasion in Liverpool I asked Father John how a certain priest of his Archdiocese was getting on.
"Very well," was the Archbishop's answer, "since I told him a lie the other day.
But it was only a white lie, as I think you will agree. He was so worried about his appearance after being ill that he felt he could never face people and work again."
The Cardinal had told him with such unblushing con fidence that he looked fine, that the priest in question never looked back from that moment onwards, and went on to do years of marvellous work in Liverpool.
Father John found time for the needs of individuals amid a punishing public schedule in a style and manner that was little short of miraculous. He never fail ed to answer letters by return of post, often in his own hand. His rounds of visits to hospitals, schools and institutions of all kinds was unending and tireless.
His memory was phenomenal. Had he chosen to he a politician he would have swept every opponent into oblivion by his energy, enthusiasm and infectiously relaxed and friendly manner with the humble and the great, with young and old.
He may have had his faults and one of the tragedies of the Church today in England is, perhaps the relish with which some people fancy they know so much about other Catholics and the bitter and rancorous prejudices that they har bour. Many were the people who thought they knew Father John Heenan well, with all his faults and his qualities. He often laughed at some of the tales brought back to him of what people were saying. His example is both admirable and of great practical value!
But he had no enemies
who could harm him, since they were invariably disarmed by his candour and humility, backed by extraordinary shrewdness and agility of mind. He prayed a lot; God's Holy Spirit was observably at his right hand. He had deep devotion to Our Lady.
To attempt any earnest prognosis of the postHeenan era on the strength of what has been achieved at Westminster in the last dozen years would be both impertinent and impossible. There will be as many surprises as Father John himself provided by such actions as his in commending the sale of Vatican treasures for charitable purposes to his masterly silencing of those who fought each other over "Humanae Vitae."
He never compromised an ounce of Church authority in suggesting that the official answer to those in genuine doubt should be "God bless you", rather than "you are condemned."
Though plagued by extremists from two sides since the Council he never, except in private, gave warnings against ,anyone by name. (And some of his private "caveats" would raise eyebrows in one or two complacent circles!) Even then, he acted only as pastoral duties seemed to dictate and was often frighteningly explicit.
Only those around the country failed to get his main message who were determined that they knew better in the first place. He bore no grudges, however, even when sorely tried.
May he be allowed a plentitude of that "eternal rest" which he once spoke of as a permanent sense of achievement according to God's holy will, enjoyed in the company of those other ascenders of Carmel, like St John of the Cross, who looked to the evening of life for a final judgement on the basis of Love.