AS I CAME into the light and warmth of Westminster Cathedral last Friday, leaving the fog and cold of a very typical London November day outside two quotations from eminent Victorians came into my mind.
The first was the words of Cardinal Wiseman, who once declared: "As people in the world go to a ball to refresh their spirits, so I go to a great religious service to refresh mine."
The second came from Walter Bagehot, who wrote in "The English Constitution" "A royal marriage is a brilliant edition of a universal fact and as such rivets mankind." What is true of a marriage is equally true of a funeral, and the obsequies of a
Prince of the Church are essentially regal. •
As one has come to expect from Westminster Cathedral, the whole of the service was impeccably organised with English dignity and precision and none of the chaos one associates with high ceremonial in Rome. The Cathedral Choir was at its best in the rendering of Colin Mawby's beautiful Dies frae and Libera Me Domine — composed, I understand, as a tribute to Cardinal Heenan.
We can only hope that the Cathedral Choir School which is threatened by closure will survive for many years to come. Without it Catholic cultural life in England would be greatly impoverished.
Yet having said that I must add that the new English service is -no substitute for the old Latin Requiem Mass. Of all forms of the Roman liturgy the Requiem High Mass was the most perfect.
Developed over the centuries, subtly blending the sense of the personal and the universal that death arouses, combining the feeling of loss and the terror which is a real part of death and judgment with the hope of redemption and resurrection, it remains one of the great creations of Christian culture.
The modern service has some jarring moments, is repetitious and lasts a very long time indeed. The congregation was in the cathedral for more than two hours, and that is too long for the modern time-scale: present-day congregations do not have the staying power of their predecessors.
If you live in public you die in public, which is one of the penalties of taking part in national public life. Cardinal Heenan was very much aware of the danger of it being forgotten amidst all the pomp and solemnity of a Requiem that at the centre of it all there is a human being with an immortal soul who needs prayerful help and assistance to accomplish the last journey. It was necessary to remind oneself at times during the service that beneath that truly monstrous object, the tasselled cardinal's hat, lay the body of a man. By choosing to be buried in the cathedral rather than in the crypt the Cardinal sought to ensure that he would be remembered in the prayers of the faithful: and so he will be while this generation lasts.
I found the simple so-called "lying in state" of the Cardinal's body rather more moving than the great official funeral. I was there for the last half hour before the doors of the Cathedral Hall closed and it was touching to see the unending file of quite ordinary Londoners and others passing before the coffin in silent tribute.
One extraordinary visitor was Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who, unable to attend the funeral because of a commitment to visit Northern Ireland (an engagement of which the Cardinal would have highly approved) found time in her busy schedule to pay a visit. Her gesture and the attendance of the Prime Minister at the funeral service are greatly appreciated by the Catholic community.
An ecumenical touch was provided by the visit of a group of Orthodox prelates who prayed for the repose of the Cardinal's soul and gave the body an absolution.
Cardinal Heenan died peacefully and painlessly, attended by a priest and with his relations gathered at his bedside. I understand that it was the Cardinal himself who warned his doctors that he would probably die that afternoon.
His faith remained strong and serene until the end, a gracious dispensation from Providence but not one on which one can rely, however godly a life may have been lived. Cardinal Vaughan, the founder of the Cathedral, whose funeral constituted its official opening, was afflicted by doubts on his deathbed. His spiritual director, Fr Considine, Si, recorded: "There had fallen on him a great loneliness and desolation of spirit, the soul seemed to be a sharer of the weakness of the body and to be, shaken by kindred agitations and pains; its eyes waxed dim as though in sympathy with the bodily senses, and the darkness into which it peered seemed haunted by ghostly presences, strange and terrifying.
"What if faith after all were but a dream and all its gracious truths mere pious imaginings? The physical powers were failing and the succours of faith appeared to be withdrawn as well; the undoubting creed of a lifetime seemed to dissolve, as it were, at the touch and to yield no support to hand or foot; the fabric of religion was fading away just when it was deeded most.
That is a terrifying passage. Cardinal Heenan at one time feared that some crisis of faith, some temptation similar to that over which Cardinal Vaughan triumphed, might assault him at the end, but his previous critical illness had reassured him on the point and in the event he was spared this final trial.
Yet had it come, who can doubt that, aided by grace, his natural courage would have carried him to victory through the. last battle: the Mother of God, whose aid the Cardinal invoked every day or his life, would have seen to that.