CHRISTMAS is very much a festival for family and friends when we gather round the hearth and renew our affection for one another in the glow of that love which comes from the Child in the Stable, the saviour of all mankind.
I always feel grateful to have survived for another Christmas to be united with those who are dear to me, but it's also an opportunity to recall in memory those who have passed to a further shore and who live now in a greater light.
One remembers them with sadness but also with joy, and is able to give thanks for their life and witness, One of the friends I will miss this year is Cyril Cowderoy, Archbishop of Southwark. I always looked forward to receiving his splendidly triumphalist Christmas card emblazoned with his coat of arms.
Alas, there will not be one this year, but the old one which I have kept will have its place of honour.
Cyril was a deeply spiritual and pastoral priest, but it is not of those qualities which I wish to write but rather of those which made him into a "character," enlivening twentieth century drabness with his own delightful individualism.
He enjoyed all the staae properties of being a bishop: the ring and the robes were accepted by him as part of a package deal. And why not? I recall the words of our late Holy Father Leo X, "Since God has_given us the _papacy, let us enjoy it," and there is truth in that.
When restrictions were placed on the wearing of episcopal glad-rags and they were confined to great occasions, he used to solve any difficulty by saying: "When I am present it is a great occasion."
There was an element of selfsend-up in all this, and it added to the enchantment. Anyhow, the laity loved it; and who but a ninny would prefer subfuse to purple? Cyril's relationship of friendship with Dr Mervyn Stockwood, the other Bishop of Southwark, was a genuine one, although it must have been much more a meeting of hearts than of minds.
I was privileged to be present twice at those celebrated Christmas dinners which Mervyn gave at his palace in Tooting and which had such an ecumenical flavour.
The Archbishop always enjoyed these occasions, but looked at times a little nervous about what his host (or the other guests) might say next. Nervousness was a part of the Archbishop's character and provided the basis for some rather naughty mimicry by the present Bishop of Leeds.
I shall always recall the two Southwarks kneeling together in the Oratory and reciting together the Lord's Prayer. An archbishop with no weakness for millinery who will be missed this year was Archbishop Roberts. He hated his ring being kissed, and once told an over-eager lady that she could do so if she wished but that she ought to know first that he kept it in his back pocket! Her reaction has not been recorded!
Archbishop Roberts was a fearless figure and a prophetic one. He was the first bishop to challenge the traditional teaching on birth control, and lived long enough to see his views, which when first enunciated were treated as heretical, embodied, in the impeccably orthodox statements of different hierarchies.
His prophetic gift was never shown to better advantage than when he resigned his See of Bombay and retired home to Farm Street because he realised that the good of the Church would require a native clergy in the future.
Another great Jesuit whom we lost this year was of course Fr Martin D'Arcy, whom knew at Oxford and then in America. Fr D'Arcy loved the United States and felt at home there.
When I first went to America in 1957 he was kind enough to introduce me to his wide circle of Catholic friends in New York, including Mrs Hoguet (who was a kind of American Catholic Queen Mary living in a mansion on the Upper East side) and Dr Maurice Leahy, another marvellous character who had been secretary in England of the Catholic Poetry Society and a friend of Alfred Noyes, Belloc and Chesterton.
Maurice always insisted that I gave a lecture on Ronald Knox when I was in New York to his circle of devoted ladies, and would never allow any variation on the theme. Fr D'Arcy was also a regular visitor.
Maurice used to tell me a story of Fr D'Arcy going up to a gentleman in a New York street who was carrying home the very bulky Sunday edition of the New York Times and asking him whether he could buy one of his papers!
Another dear Jesuit friend I recall with affection was Fr Thomas Corbishley, whose courage and tenacity rivalled that of Archbishop Roberts. Tom was always willing to be guided by the spirit of the law rather than its letter.
This openness made him a wise counsellor to those in matrimonial difficulties and there must be many couples who will be enjoying a Christmas together this year thanks to his help and concern.
Time like an ever rolling stream Bears all its sons away.
That is the sadness. but Christian hope brings promise of reunion. I look forward to that, but not quite yet! A happy and holy Christmas to all readers, and may we be together for many Christmases to come.