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Cardinal John Carmel Heenan
posted on 11 January 2005
John Heenan
John Heenan

Born 26th January 1905, of parents both born themselves in the Parish of Clareen in Ireland. In infancy he was taught by Ursuline nuns who termed him ‘Jackie Lantern.’ At the age of 9 he was auditioned for Westminster Cathedral Choir School but Sir Richard Terry told his mother he had a ‘metallic voice.’ He went to St. Ignatius College, Stamford Hill, London to be educated by the Jesuits and from there at 17 went on to Ushaw, which then had large numbers of ex-Servicemen. At the age of 19 he entered the Venerable English College where his acting and impersonation exploits became legendary. He was ordained in his own Ilford Parish Church and sent as Curate to St. Ethelburga’s, Barking, Essex.

In 1937 aged 32, he became Parish Priest of Manor Park where he was to remain throughout the war until 1947. During these years of shared joy and suffering with his people he re-lived his childhood experiences when Zeppelins had lazily floated over London to drop primitive bombs. Now, however he was pulling trapped victims out of blitzed and burning buildings, putting out fires in his own parish school and spending nightly vigils at the local Fire Station. In 1940 he began broadcasting on the service to America - in a series called ‘Britain Speaks.’ He gave many talks on programmes for the Forces. He became known for his newspaper articles and public speaking.

While a Parish Priest he published five books – the best known being one about his former Rector in Rome, Cardinal Hinsley.

In 1947 he became Head of the Catholic Missionary Society when it was re-organising after the war. He gathered a strong team around him – including two former V.E.C. colleagues, G.P.Dwyer (later Archbishop) and T. Holland (later Bishop). They used a motorised Chapel with loudspeakers for this. He was now in constant demand for talks and retreats – despite his ‘metallic voice.’ Much of his material he published in a new book, ‘The People’s Priest.’ As the book came into the shops (1951), he was named Bishop of Leeds.

His priests could now read their destiny. He brought instant activity to a Diocese that had previously had an ailing Bishop. Clergy were moved about rapidly and the Diocese earned the nickname ‘the cruel see.’ Choosing to live close to his people he was part of the Cathedral staff – with his bike chained up in the back yard. He instituted an ‘Open Day’ each Friday when anyone could see him without appointment.

New churches sprang up in this post-war era and his flock were most distressed to lose him to Liverpool in 1957 as Archbishop. He pushed for the building of the neglected Cathedral and launched a competition for the best design, which resulted in the consecration in 1967 of that unique Liverpool shape dominating the University skyline. By then Heenan had moved on to Westminster as Archbishop (1963) and in 1965 was created Cardinal.

He attended the Vatican Council from 1962 – 1965 where he was cautious yet determined about implementing its decisions. He set up both a Senate of Priests and a Pastoral Council and also a College for training religious teachers in the new thinking. The latter had a chequered existence. He sought fresh links through his own friendship with the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury – pulpit exchanges, etc.

He led the Bishop’s Conference on public statements about moral issues and was an outspoken opponent of abortion, contraception and euthanasia. These topics had just come alive as social phenomena.

At Rome he was a member of the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and also of the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law.

In 1967 he suffered a serious illness and for the next 6 years had to fight much ill-health. Heart attacks in 1973 and 1974 eventually led to his death on 7 November 1975 aged 70.

At his own wish he was buried, like Hinsley, in the Cathedral and not in the crypt alongside Manning, Wiseman, Griffin and Godfrey. His tomb lies under the twelfth station – ‘Jesus dies on the Cross.’

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