As I approached the school gate, I was unsure about which way I was supposed to be going. I decided to cross the road, and, once safely on the other side, I burst into tears. A priest who was walking his dog asked why I was crying and said that, as he was going in the direction of my intended destination, he would show me the way.
The next day and for several subsequent weeks, when I came out of school I would find him standing at the same spot where we had met the previous afternoon. As we walked, he listened patiently and kindly to all my woes while offering advice and encouragement. In my homesickness, the priest’s support, friendship and wisdom comforted me beyond words. He would tell me if he knew he was going to be away the next day so that I wouldn’t be distressed by his absence.
One afternoon, as we walked and talked, a man passed by, doffed his hat and said: ‘Good afternoon, Your Grace.’ I thought this was hilarious and had no idea what he meant by this greeting. ‘Why did he say that?’ I laughed. Giving one of his lovely, gentle smiles, he replied: ‘Because I’m the Archbishop.’ At such a young age, the title meant nothing to me.
How many others in Liverpool Archdiocese have their own personal memories of the then Archbishop, subsequently Cardinal, Heenan? Even his tomb in Westminster Cathedral doesn’t draw attention to itself: a simple grey slab set into the floor.
But then, one of his successors in Westminster Abbey, Cardinal Basil Hume, was equally slow to show off. A visitor to the cathedral, said that she had met a monk strolling down the aisle, his black cardigan slung over his shoulder. ‘I thought I recognised him,’ she said. ‘I went across to say hello and asked him if he was the monk who used to cut the grass at Ampleforth. He said that, yes, he used to mow the lawns. We chatted for a while about Ampleforth. It was only afterwards that I realised the monk was actually the Cardinal.’
Of course today, we have another example of someone not pushing himself forwards. Before the conclave which elected him Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio was regularly seen praying before the statue of St Thérèse in a church on his way to the Vatican. It was only after some time that the priests recognised him, not only as a cardinal but also as a cardinal who was thought a likely or possible candidate to become Pope.
Days after his election, Francis rang the Jesuit Generalate, close to St Peter’s, and asked to be put through to the then Father General, Fr Adolfo Nicolas SJ. The staff member on reception, as always, asked for his name. On being told that the voice on the other end of the phone was Pope Francis, the man snorted in disbelief and basically told the caller to pull the other leg – and then realised, to his horror, that he really was speaking to the Pontiff!
Great people are not show-offs. In the fifth century, St Augustine wrote: ‘Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being humble. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.’