A few days ago, I told a friend that Gerard Henderson had just asked me to speak here tonight, to give, what he called, a ‘personal reflection’ on Cardinal Gilroy. ‘You should say,’ said my friend, ‘that you once wrote a book, A Place in the City, the first sentence of which is, ‘It wasn’t much fun living in the same house as Cardinal Gilroy.’ True. But I wasn’t there for fun. I was there, half a century ago, to be a curate in the cathedral parish.
As such, I mainly saw the cardinal at meals in the rather formal dining room. There, the heavy questions of archdiocesan policy and its implementation were never discussed. If a visitor tried to raise them, the Cardinal would cut him short: ‘I see the Bishop of Winnipeg has died,’ he might say. Or, if the visitor persisted, ‘Have a banana, Father.’
‘Meals,’ I wrote in A Place in the City, ‘were meant to be recreation from the weighty matters of church and state considered elsewhere in the building. What ships were in the harbour, the vagaries of familiar clients of the cathedral’s aid, oddities from the day’s news – these were safe subjects. The adamantine rule was never to mention another priest at table, lest you unwittingly said anything that could somehow discredit him.’ Thus A Place in the City. It was, I wrote, as if you were under house arrest.
Sitting at the other end of the dining room table, I noticed something that seemed to me to be a residue, a surviving habit from his Roman education: he always gave people their proper, formal titles: His Grace, His Excellency, Monsignor, Father… never first names or nicknames. Nor did he encourage gossip or tittle-tattle about those in power. Power, he knew, is a network, a web, a seamless construct – damage any part of it and the whole thing suffers. I often remembered King James I’s response to the Presbyterian divines who were arguing for the abolition of bishops. ‘No bishop, no king.’ It goes without saying that no unkind comment was ever voiced about the Bishop of Rome (‘the Holy Father’, as the Cardinal always called him, although we might say ‘the Pope’). Yet such deference was not accorded to understrappers of the Vatican. When Pope Paul VI was coming to Sydney at the end of 1970, the cathedral dean spent some hours getting the sight-lines of the altar exactly right for TV cameras in the clerestory. A few days later, two monsignori from the Vatican turned up and moved the altar out of line. ‘How did the meeting with the Vatican people go?’ asked Gilroy that night. ‘They moved the altar we had spent hours getting aligned for the TV cameras,’ complained the dean. ‘Move it back,’ said Gilroy. He wasn’t going to have his man pushed around by blow-ins.
His life seemed lonely, however, filled with constant interviews, ceremonies and public occasions. A man of prayer, yes, but a lonely man. John Luttrell’s book tells us that he relaxed on Sunday nights in the family home; but there is no mention of personal friends, mates.
Let me tell you a story about that. When a priest was to be transferred from the cathedral to work elsewhere, a high tea was given in his honour, at which we each spoke. One such I remember vividly, the farewell to a Scripture scholar who was joining the seminary staff. In his speech, the cardinal acknowledged that seminary authorities had made several requests for this man’s services; and each time (until now) the cardinal had refused them. Why? He said that he hated to lose any of the cathedral men because – here I quote him – ‘in the necessary isolation of a bishop’s life you are like a family to me.’ ‘The necessary isolation of a bishop’s life’ – what psychic cost is contained in that reading of a bishop’s responsibility!
Now let me tell you two stories where Cardinal Gilroy came into my life. Back then, the church had re-introduced into the Mass an ancient call-and-response form of prayer to focus on issues of the day. It was called Prayers of the Faithful and the bishops had produced a book of sample prayers with the instruction that if other prayers were added they should be written out, not done extempore. One Sunday, I was on the High Mass with Cardinal Gilroy presiding – it was a special occasion, Red Cross Sunday I think, and he was there to show his support. A week earlier, Father Dan Berrigan, an American Jesuit and protestor against the Vietnam War, had been arrested by the FBI. I wrote out a prayer for him and added it to the Prayers of the Faithful. Cardinal Gilroy was not happy. He instructed a secretary to excise my prayer from the tape before it was broadcast on the radio that night. The next day I wrote him a letter, to say that, as instructed by the bishops, I had written out the prayer for a brother priest in good standing with his religious order who was now in trouble. Leaving the dining room, he stopped and told me that I hadn’t understood: he was presiding at the Mass, so people might think he had authorised the prayer. This was not the end of the story. A few weeks later, he inserted a sentence into the table talk, ‘I see Father Berrigan’s superiors have declared him in good standing with their order.’ And he looked down the table to where I sat at the bottom. I admired him for his amende honourable.
Here is another story. After I had been at the cathedral for a year or so, I started an independent newsletter called Report. Its aim was to carry the news that the Catholic press, for whatever reason, did not print. Report began the week Pope Paul released his encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning contraception, so there was plenty of news to gather. As well, the daily press, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, liked what we wrote and, often enough, ran stories sourced in Report. An assiduous reader of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Cardinal was aware of us. After some months, his principal secretary came to me and said he felt he had to tell Gilroy that I was the main writer of the stories he was reading about in his paper. I told him to go ahead. Which he did… to be told, ‘You’re not saying, are you? No, you’re not – that Father Campion is printing material he is getting in here?’ And the cardinal passed to the next item on the agenda. An admirable man.
Here is a story that shows him as a man of his times. When Humanae Vitae came out, in 1968, I went to the press conference in the crypt of the cathedral. I knew some of the journalists there, two of them women. Cardinal Gilroy sat at a table covered with a worn green cloth, with Bishop Muldoon and two or three desiccated theologians. The Cardinal opened proceedings: ‘Good afternoon, gentlemen,’ he said.
Since I am speaking at the Sydney Institute, I expect you want me to say something about politics. To this day, however, I cannot tell which way Cardinal Gilroy voted. I direct you to John Luttrell’s book again.
One thing I found there startled me so much that I copied it in my notebook to mull over on the bus and at coffee. Towards the end of 1963 or the beginning of 1964, the Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Gracias, had an invitation from B A Santamaria to speak at a conference he was organizing. What to do? Gracias wrote to Cardinal Gilroy for advice: Did he know this man Santamaria? Should he accept the invitation? Back came Gilroy’s reply (p 265 in Luttrell):
‘The person who wrote to you not only has not the confidence of the greater part of the Australian Hierarchy but is regarded by them as one of the most harmful influences there has been in the Australian Church.’
As so often in the history of the church, quarrels are between good men on both sides of an argument.
Edmund Campion is a Catholic Priest and historian.
These comments were a back up to John Luttrell at the Sydney Institute who was speaking about his new biography of Cardinal Gilroy