Downey's early years
R EFORE a packed congregation in Liverpool's 'pro-Cathedral of St. Nicholas on Tuesday morning, Bishop Flynn of Lancaster preached the panegyric on Archbishop Downey.
Ile recalled how as small boss the had served Macs together in a nun's chapel in Everton.
At the age of seven years Richard Downey, who was later to become Archbishop of Liverpool, and whose soul we are commending to God today, came to Liverpool from Ireland. Very shortly after that he and I were appointed to serve daily Mass at Everton Valley Convent.
To us that meant little more than the adventure of going through the streets of Everton at 6.30 in the morning, winter and summer, and serving Mass in the quiet of a nuns' chapel. But from that little beginning Archbishop Downey's life's opportunity catne.
For there the chaplain was that great-hearted and zealous priest, Fr. Laurence Kehoe, then newly ordained and personal secretary to Bishop O'Reilly.
He doubtless watched us very carefully, for in a couple of years he presented both of us as candidates for the priesthood. Richard Downey went to St. Edward's College in 1894, whither I, 17 months older, had preceded him in the previous year.
He was then a gay, intelligent hoy, with the twinkling brown eyes which characterised him to the end, and completely popular from the start. Already he gave signs of that wit which was the sling which in years to come sped the pebbles from the brook of truth with devastating effect at Philistine giants like H. G. Wells, Freud and Stalin.
Although sparkling with fun, he was ever a serious student and he passed through his humanities at St. Edward's with distinction; but it was when he went to the major seminary of Upholland that he really showed his ability. There in the professional studies of philosophy, theology, history and Scripture he carried off most of the prizes year after year. And there, too, he showed his gift of sacred eloquence.
Thence he went as a priest to the Bede College in Rome, in company with his class-mate and life-long friend Fr. Joe Howard. At the Gregorian University he obtained the Doctorate of Theology.
On his return, in 1911, Archbishop Whiteside seconded him to the Missionary Society in London; and I think it is safe to say that it was among the very able men he met there that his education was fully developed and completed.
In their company he went all over the country preaching missions to non-Catholics, and those who knew him at any time of his life can imagine the dexterity with which he parried the thrusts of hecklers and answered the questions put in the box. Now he was fighting God's battle and thoroughly enjoying the ardour of conflict.
After 15 years, in 1926. he returned to his native diocese to become VicePresident and Professor of Dogma at Upholland. By that time he was very heavy in body. but he retained his indomitable spirit and his undying capacity for fun and friendship. He had a host of friends in the diocese and was a welcome visitor in the parishes where he constantly preached. Wherever he went throughout his life he made friends.
When at his suggestion and by his arrangement I went to New York, I found that the clergy there were full of anecdotes of his visit. and of admiration of his wit and happy disposition.
Almost 25 years ago he was appointed to succeed Archbishop Keating as Archbishop of Liverpool and Metropolitan of the Northern Province. Such a great office fired his lively imagination and he at once began the work of bringing the Catholics of Liverpool into the full light of day.
Liverpool had been a splendidly solid and powerful diocese under Archbishop Whiteside, but that retiring, though admirable administrator, felt no urge to claim any leading role in civic life: He abhorred civic functions and shunned the limelight : he did make a resounding and effective public protest which killed Birrel's education bill in 1906, but such appearances were rare. He wanted no Cathedral.
Then came Archbishop Keating, of whom it is said that he brought Liverpool Catholicism out of the catacombs; but brilliant orator as he was and "magnificent" in the strictest sense of the word, he was a sick man when he came to the city and he reigned for only seven years. He completed the seminary of Upholland and launched the idea of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
It remained for Archbishop Downey to bring Catholicism out of the shadows to the full light of perfect day. He faced the task, gay, buoyant, adventurous and unafraid.
He at once threw himself into the forefront of civic life. His speeches made him a welcome guest on. all occasions. The hierarchy recognised his ability and called on him for public pronouncements on important occasions. He was asked to preach at almost every consecration or funeral of a bishop.
His natural gifts of wit and urbanity made him an ideal negotiator with Government departments. 1 remember how up to 10 years ago the architects of the Butler Act were eager to applaud his ready wit across the negotiating table and listen with respect to what the powerful Catholic body of Liverpool had to say through the mouth of their Archbishop, and how they rocked with laughter when he spoke demurely of Liverpool's "orange grove."
He was on the watch, he accepted every hardship, —he employed himself in preaching the gospel, he performed every duty of his office, keeping a sober mind.
For now, a successor of the Apostles, he found himself in "a time when men had grown tired of sound doctrine and had provided themselves with a continuous succession of new teachers, turning a deaf ear to the truth." He had to "safe-guard his flock from such errors, to bring home wrong-doing, to comfort the waverer, to rebuke the sinner, but with all the patience of a teacher."
All bishops have this responsibility; he had the rare gift of being able to secure a hearing. For this he welcomed every opportunity; he became all things to all men.
He would give a lecture in a synagogue, speak in a university debate, address a cricket club, or kick off at a football match. He would preside at a public meeting in St. George's Hall and have thousands of the warm-hearted Liverpool Irish mobbing him in the square afterwards, and hearing banners calling down God's blessing on "our little gem."
Or he would open a new school and tell the world precisely what he thought of those who considered education primarily in terms of bricks and mortar.
He continued to do these things even when he was worn out by long periods of sickness, for he had dogged courage. He had indeed to accept hardship. For in spite of all his verve and brightness of manner he must have been frequently downcast, though he would not allow that to be seen. Even in his last illness he was always serene. He was like a bright meteor flashing through the sky of 20th-century Catholicism.
His project of a Cathedral was so gigantic that no man could hope to see it realized in his lifetime. But whatever has been done has depended on his courage and inspiration alone—and that is not to make light of the able lieutenants who worked under his direction.
Like Atlas, he carried that Cathedral on his own back. It is, as he must have known it would be, far from completion at his death. None of us can foretell its future. But whatever that may be the Cathedral will be a lasting monument to the third Archbishop of Liverpool, whose remains will lie in its crypt.
And now he has gone to God. He has fought the good fight, finished the course and has kept the faith. With all his brilliance and his philosophic learning that faith was ever strong in him.
St. Paul, congratulating Timothy 12 'fins. 1, 5) on the faith he found in him says. "that faith dwelt in thy grandmother Lois and in thy mother. Eunice. before that." The great French physiologist, Claude Bernard. proclaimed that his faith was that of a Breton woman. So, too, Archbishop Downey's faith was that faith that dwelt in his Irish mother before him, as many of us remember.
I have indicated that Liverpool Catholicism under the dead Archbishop was like the path of the just which "as a shining light goeth forward and increaseth to perfect day" (Proverbs iv, 18). His own path, starling from obscure beginnings, grew ever brighter; now to the world its light seems to he quenched in death.
But we know that death is not an end hut a beginning. and that the perfect day awaits the just beyond the grave. We have every confidence that eternal light will shine upon him. But let us not be guilty of the cruelty of admiring friends who forget the white-hot light of God's scrutiny. Bishops like other men have many imperfections which will loom large in that light. We have great responsibilities and shall be judged on them.
But God our Friend and Father has chosen us, supported us, and used us as His instruments for the guarding of His Church and the salvation of souls. He will give us credit for all that by His grave we may have done for Him; He will remember the comfort given to the waverer, the recall of the sinner, the sacrifices we have offered at the altar, and the hardship caused by work or ill-health cheerfully accepted in union with His Passion.
Let us. the dead Archbishop's friends, his subjects, pray that our friend and father may soon be released from the purgatorial fires which the best of us must expect, and be admitted into the full brightness of God's presence, where our faith shall be swallowed up in the beatific vision. our life-long hope realised, our charity, the greatest of these, remaining, and intensified in the antor amicitae, the reciprocal love of perfect friendship.
The Archbishop was recently honoured by being made an Assistant at the Pontifical Throne of the Vicar of Christ; we pray that Christ Himself will soon call him to be an assistant at His own Eternal Throne.
He has first to render an account of his long stewardship. He would be the last to minimize the seriousness of that account or to pin his hopes on the worldly approval of his success. But he might say in the words of St. Bernard, "My merit is the mercy of the Lord. I am clearly not devoid of merit as long as He is not devoid of mercy. And if the mercies of the Lord are from eternity to eternity, I will sing the praises of the Lord for ever."
Eternal rest give unto him. 0 Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.