Mgr Dilwyn J.D. Lewis
From valley to Vatican
THE FACT THAT Dilwyn Lewis, who has died aged 76, did not end his days as a Cardinal Archbishop was for him one of life's mysteries. It was just another if inexplicable example of the Church's ability to get things wrong. Dilwyn's closest friends may well have felt that it was an example of the Church getting things exactly right. There was no doubt that Dilwyn saw himself as eminently suited to the highest offices in the Church, and could be somewhat acerbic about those who actually had such responsibilities. In fact his appointment to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was an inspired choice in that it gave him an opportunity to use his considerable gifts in a situation that called out for them.
As a young man he had set up his own design company, and travelled widely in Europe where he came to know the then Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. According to Dilwyn it was Montini who saw the potential in him and urged him to become a priest. In the event it was some years later that Dilwyn offered himself to Bishop David Cashman for the priesthood in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton.
After his ordination in 1974 he was appointed as curate at St Clement's in Ewell, Surrey. He later worked for a while in Reggio Calabria as a chaplain for English speakers and subsequently became chaplain at Gatwick Airport. He was an extremely effective chaplain and part of his success was his availability in the airport to staff and passengers alike. He was always around the airport, and he made the chaplaincy's presence felt as only he could. He was the chaplain at the airport when Pope John Paul II came there at the start of his pastoral visit in 1982. It was no surprise to those who knew him that Dilwyn managed to "hitch a lift" to Rome on the Pope's plane when it left from Cardiff five days later. In 1984 it was announced that he had been appointed a Canon of the Basilica of St Mary Major. Not everyone approved, and one priest told him that he personally would never have accepted such a post in Rome. To this Dilwyn replied, unkindly but accurately, that he would never have been asked in the first place.
Dilwyn's background in
South Wales — where he grew up in an orphanage in Bridgend — marked him for life. He was capable of great kindness, and was frequently extremely generous, especially to the young. He could also be incandescent with rage, and would fly off the handle without any warning. It would have been difficult to be bored in his company. It must be said that his temperament was both an advantage and a disadvantage.
When he took up his post in Rome it was like a Welsh tornado blowing through the ancient Basilica. He was made responsible for the administration of the Basilica and for the vital task of restoration.
Things were in a parlous state when he arrived. In Rome, as at Gatwick, he was a constant presence in the Basilica. He took a personal interest in all that was going on, which gave him a clear view of what was needed. He used to say that he was the first Welsh Canon there for 1,000 years, and that if his Italian colleagues had their way he would also be the last. Whether this was true or not they certainly recognised that he had transformed the Basilica, and with enormous energy had managed to put the finances on a sound footing. The salaries of the Canons were increased significantly, and the life of the Basilica was changed. He took every opportunity to encourage choirs from various countries to come to the Basilica and sing at Mass. In many ways a traditional Catholic he worked hard to build ecumenical contacts with the Church of England and numbered many Anglican clergy and laity among his friends.
A turbulent character with enormous energy and a larger than life personality, Dilwyn Lewis was the right man in the right place at the right time.
FATHER ANTHONY M CHURCHILL