Bishop Gerald Mahon – Obituary

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, 8 February 1992

All those who knew Bishop Gerald Mahon will remember him as a warm and friendly man. Empathy was his greatest gift, out­shining his many, lasting organisational achievements. He had an outstanding abil­ity to put people at their ease, and there was no shred of snobbishness in him. He could talk as freely with uneducated people as with academics, and they all responded to his kindly, interested approach. Class barriers meant nothing to him. He loved and appreciated people as they were. For him, appearances and prestige were not important; people were. He could talk to anyone about anything, and because he was so natural and human, no one could help liking him.

Born in London in 1922 and educated at Cardinal Vaughan School, Westminster, Gerald Mahon joined the Mill Hill Society and was ordained a missionary priest in 1946. After taking degrees in geography and English at Cambridge, he taught for five years at Freshfield minor seminary and subsequently served eight years in Kenya, in the diocese of Kisumu. Even in those early years his extraordinary talent for relating to people made its mark. When Bishop Joseph Cleary of Birmingham accompanied Bishop Mahon on a visit to Kenya, 15 years later, he reported how often they were stopped in Nairobi’s busy streets by people who exclaimed: “Oh, Father Mahon, don’t you remember me? You taught me! You blessed my marriage! You baptised my children!” Mahon’s skills as a spiritual father and leader were to prove themselves even more when, in 1963, he was elected superior general of the Mill Hill Missionaries.

He realised that drastic reforms were called for. It was opportune that Vatican II had just begun. The Mill Hill Society fielded close to 1,300 men in 26 countries and the extent of the task of managing them becomes clear if one knows that at this time all appointments of members were made centrally. As a result, priests and brothers had been pushed around like pawns on an international chessboard, with little regard for personal problems, prefer­ences and skills. Levels of frustration ran high.

Mahon will be remembered in the Mill Hill Society for the reforms which culmin­ated in the Renewal Chapter of 1970; but even more for his restoring the human element. When I met him for the first time in Holland in 1964, I had just completed my studies in Rome and was preparing to take up work in India. It was late at night

The year 1970 confronted Mahon with what he always considered the most diffi­cult decision of his life. Cardinal Heenan was looking for a new auxiliary, and Mahon’s London origins, his balanced views and leadership qualities made him a prime candidate for the post. Soon the invitation letter from Rome arrived. Mahon agonised. He had taken a missionary oath and some of his close advisers believed he should refuse on those grounds. On the other hand, Mahon felt that the Pope’s request overruled his own previous commitments. He accepted, saying that, anyway, he might achieve even more for missions overseas as a bishop in England.

For 11 years the new bishop was in charge of 93 parishes in Outer London (the old Middlesex). When Cardinal Hume reorganised the Westminster archdiocese, Mahon’s area was split and he became Auxiliary Bishop in West London. His gift for dealing with people once more proved to be his main asset. He was universally liked by those who worked closely with him: the clergy, religious and lay leaders. For the ordinary parishioners he appeared eminently as a real pastor: approachable, devout, simple, travelling by public trans­port and living in a semi-detached house.

His desire to be “in touch” with the people, to recognise their gifts and make use of their potential for the good of the Church led him to convoke three pastoral congresses for the West London Area. The first, in 1985, took as its theme “The Mission of the People of God in West London”. Later, in 1988, the congress looked at “Co-responsibility in the Church”, while the most recent one, in. February 1991 put the emphasis on “Evangelisation”, taking the papal ex­hortation “Christifideles Laici” as a study document. All the congresses were re­sidential, with 120 people, representatives from the 41 parishes in West London, spending a weekend in London Colney. Those who took part ascribed the success of such events in no small measure to their bishop’s enthusiasm and ability to listen to all.

Mahon’s pastoral commitments in Lon­don did not stop him from serving the world Church. He was a consultor of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Rome and served on a number of Vatican commissions: Justice and Peace, Interreligious Dialogue and Religious Dia­logue with the Jews. Bishop Mahon will be mourned by his many Jewish friends. He helped greatly in the dispute over Au­schwitz convent and was responsible for arranging an audience with the Pope in 1990 which resulted in a Papal declaration describing anti-Semitism as a sin.

In 1970 Rome asked him to travel to North Yemen to explore the feasibility of the mid Seventies, during Amin’s reign of terror; then to Jamaica, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Chile; and finally, to China in 1987 where, under cover of establishing links between Chinese and British universi­ties, he visited six Chinese bishops and a number of their priests.

Within the Bishops’ Conference, Mahon functioned as the missionary conscience. His persistent nudging to pursue dialogue with people of other faiths prompted ah exploration survey of other faiths in Britain that opened the way for the establishment of the multi-faith centre in Birmingham. A six-week tour of the English-speaking (dio­ceses of the Caribbean produced a report that pleaded for a greater understanding and sympathy for the West Indian people in England. As chairman of the National Mission Council he initiated schemes which enabled most bishops of England and Wales (and many priests) to obtain first-hand, experience of the Third world, which he believed was a prerequisite for stimulating commitment to world-wide mission.

An angry classmate in Africa who wanted to know why the English hierarchy did not condemn arms deals with South Africa received a plea for time. “It’s true”, Mahon wrote, “that the Catholic hierarchy have not got a tradition of making state­ments on current issues except those con­nected with Catholic schools and sex. But things are changing.” Later episcopal state­ments have proved him right.

As superior general of Mill Hill, Gerald Mahon sat in on the Second Vatican Council. With Fr Arthur McCormack, whom Mahon brought to the council as an expert, and a number of social leaders, among them Barbara Ward, Jim Norris and Monsignors Gremillion, Ligutti and Kaiser, Mahon planned the establishment in Rome of a World Poverty Secretariat. While the others drew up documents, he lobbied Council members in the coffee bars of St Peter’s (the Bar Jona on one side, the Bar Abbas on the other). With the crucial support of other English bishops, in particular of Cardinal Heenan and Bishop Derek Worlock (now Archbishop of Liverpool), the proposal for such a body was enshrined in paragraph 90 of Gaudium et Spes, and was given reality, after the Council, in the Pontifical Com­mission for Justice and Peace.

When Mahon addressed the general assembly of Vatican II about the new proposal, he stated that activity in the social and economic field was not a side­-line, but an essential part of the full Gospel. “The poor of the world look with anxious eyes to the Council to see if the Church of Christ, lover of the poor, champions their cause. They are asking for concrete, effective, sustained action. Otherwise they, the hungry of the world, might well say: ‘We asked for bread, and you gave us a document – and not even a document, just a few lines in a document.’” “What we have to work for”, he added in a press conference, “is for the Church to become, as it were, a lobby for the poor of the world.”