The Cardinals


On two occasions in my life I have had encounters with Cardinal Archbishops of Westminster. Both times the subject of our conversations rather surprised me.

The first meeting was arranged by a friend at the time, Father Michael O’Dwyer. I met Michael when I was working towards a doctorate and keeping body and soul together by teaching part-time at my former grammar school, The Quintin School, in St John’s Wood, north London. Each year, Michael organised a trip for Catholic boys in the school to attend a special schools’ mass in Westminster Cathedral. Although he knew I was an agnostic, Michael explained that he needed an extra member of staff to escort the boys and asked if I would like to join in. I don’t think he had any ambition to convert me; we got on well together and he felt confident enough to ask me to help him make up the numbers to meet staff: pupil requirements. I thought it might be an interesting experience, so I agreed to go.

I remember little of the mass itself, except that the boys seemed to enjoy it, and the cathedral itself was an impressive setting. I also enjoyed the smell of the incense. The principal celebrant turned out to be none other than the Cardinal Archbishop himself, Cardinal John Heenan. He was a most impressive figure with a great aura of authority and a commanding presence.

Imagine my surprise, then, when after the mass Michael O’Dwyer took me to one side. While another member of staff was supervising our pupils and leading them back to the coaches, Michael told me that the Cardinal wanted to meet me. Now, although a devout and spiritual man, Michael often had a twinkle in his eye and a fine sense of humour. I naturally thought he was joking with me. But, no, he insisted that he was serious. I agreed to go to meet his Eminence.

Sure enough, there was the Cardinal in his robes and obviously looking forward to our meeting. He offered his hand and beamed at me.

“I am delighted to meet you, Mr McNeir. It’s a great pleasure.”

I tried to keep the surprise out of my voice as I mumbled some form of reciprocal greeting. Here was a senior member of the Papal hierarchy expressing joy at meeting me, a young man barely out of university. I wondered fleetingly if it might have had something to do with my Jacobite Catholic ancestors, but immediately dismissed the idea. How could he know about that connection when I had only the slightest knowledge about it myself? My surprise increased with the Cardinal’s next statement.

“Michael has told me a lot about you, and I wanted to tell you how much I admire you.”

This was getting beyond a joke, and I was starting to think the two clerics were making fun at my expense. But surely these two pleasant men could not be so cruel.

“You admire me?” I murmured. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t understand.” Understatement!

“Michael tells me you are a linguist and that you are most proficient in more than one foreign language. Is that not so?”

“My degree is in French and German.”

“Exactly. Let me explain. Later this year I’m going on an official visit – church business – to a number of countries in Latin America. To prepare myself, I’m having to learn some Spanish. I’m amazed how difficult that is. When Michael told me about you, I thought this would be a great opportunity to seek your advice.”

“You want my advice?” I was incredulous. Imagine the scene: I was standing in the splendour of Westminster Cathedral talking with the most senior Catholic cleric in the country, and he was asking me for advice. He was looking at me expectantly, and I realised that quick thinking was required.

“Use the language all the time,” I said.

The Cardinal frowned. I continued.

“I don’t mean to the people around you here in Britain. I mean in your head. Whenever you do something, describe it to yourself in Spanish. Keep a notebook with you at all times and write down the words you need to learn. That way, you’ll build your vocabulary and get your brain used to using the language. Look around you and try to describe everything you see: buildings, people, trees, vehicles. You see what I mean?”

“Yes. Yes, I do. But what about conversation?”

“Get a phrase book – Berlitz, Collins, or anything similar. Learn basic terms and expressions. That will help you to become fluent in every day situations. You need to build your confidence.”

We parted with profuse thanks from the Cardinal, and I never expected to see or hear from him again. I was wrong.

My friend Michel O’Dwyer taught history at The Quintin School. He had conceived the idea that Catholic priests who were qualified teachers ‘should get out into the world’, to use his expression, and not confine themselves to working solely in Catholic schools. He was a far-thinking and persuasive man and had convinced the church authorities that his policy was worth adopting. So persuasive was he, that he succeeded in getting the church to get a group of nine priest-teachers appointed to posts in schools run by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA).

The snag was, where would they live? Priests are normally housed in presbyteries as part of their role in a parish. Without parish responsibilities, there would be no houses for them. Here again, Father O’Dwyer not only had the answer but the ability to persuade the church to buy a house to accommodate the priest-teachers and even a small group of nuns who would manage the household. When Michael explained the scheme to me, I remarked that it all sounded splendidly medieval. The idea appealed to him, and I saw that familiar twinkle.

The day came for the official opening of the house, and Michael invited me to be present. I was amused to see that the house was situated in a quiet cul-de-sac in Highgate called Stormont Road! Even more amusing was the fact that the house was named Stormont End …

The ceremony opening was conducted by Cardinal Heenan, and I was pleased to see him again, though I was sure he would not remember me from the previous year. He made a warm and charming speech, including the comment that God had given him the good sense to do what Michael O’Dwyer told him to do.

As the guests stood chatting at the reception that followed, I was suddenly aware of glances over my shoulder. I turned to find the Cardinal beside me, doing his rounds, exchanging a few words with church dignitaries and colleagues. He was shaking hands with everyone, and when my turn came he smiled and took my hand in both of his. He leaned forward and lowered his voice.

“I took your advice and it worked. Everyone complimented me on my command of Spanish. Thank you so much, and may God bless you.”

As he moved on, I found myself speechless, with no words in any language.

It was some years later that I had my second encounter with a Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. It took place at a reception on the occasion of the annual conference of the Society of Education Officers. I had been elected to the Board of the SEO the previous year and in that capacity I was asked by the President to act as host to Cardinal Basil Hume, who had succeeded Cardinal Heenan in that position

It isn’t easy to make small talk with a Cardinal. Nor did I think it would be wise to ask him for a quick rundown on the concept of Original Sin. However, I had done some background reading, which I was able to put to some use.

I know we got on good terms, because afterwards the SEO President came over and said he had noticed how well the Cardinal and I were getting on.

“I had no idea you were so up on spiritual matters,” he said.

I smiled beatifically. If he did but know . . .

The subject on which we were conversing so fluently was not doctrine, virgin birth, the liturgy or even the rise of Old Church Slavonic in the eighth century. We had been taking about … football. Now this is a subject about which I know very little, to say the least. But I did know that Cardinal Hume had been a supporter of Newcastle United and a regular attender at matches when he was headmaster of Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire. I had heard a rumour that when he was elevated to the post of Archbishop of Westminster, he had expressed some regret that he would not often be able to visit St James’ Park – the Newcastle United ground – after moving to London.

According to the rumour, the board of directors of that famous football club had presented Basil Hume with a lifelong season ticket and an invitation to join the directors in their box on any occasion when he could get up to Newcastle. Were these rumours true? I asked, adding that I would treat his reply in the strictest confidence.

After a moment’s hesitation, the Cardinal grinned at me and nodded.

In my subsequent conversation with the SEO President I of course respected that confidence. I think I told him that Cardinal Hume and I had enjoyed nothing better than a good old natter about the nature of Original Sin.