Part Two – Fr Hilton Roberts remembers Mons Kevin, Ordination and Pope John Paul II (Audio)
We continue with Part Two of the audio interview as Fr Hilton Roberts reminisces on the weeks leading up to the inauguration of Pope John XXIII and the extension of St Christopher’s Cathedral in Canberra.
The other memories that I’d like to share are historical. I like to share them because Kevin and I in the late 1950s were caught up in momentous events in the history of the church and they sort of left us with impressions and experiences and memories that really in our certain sense dominated are the rest of our lives
In 1958 in October we had our summer break at Castel Gandolfo at the Villa and on the 2nd of October the whole College went back from Castel Gandolfo back to Rome for the new Academic Year and the following Thursday, which was in 9th of October. I remember Pope Pius the 12th died.
The Vatican authorities then invited students from the college from Propaganda College to come out and keep prayerful vigil around his body. So Kevin and I were together, we went out in the early hours of the morning. I think about three o’clock. We went in groups of six and three stood on either side of the body of the Pope lying there in in the heart of the Papal Villa and it was as I say, three o’clock in the morning. It was very very moving, you know to pray beside the death of beside the body of this this great Pope and you know, he was so close to his you could you could have reached out and touched his body and moving experience which both of us remember and we’ll never forget.
Anyway Pope Pius having died a new pope had to be elected so a conclave was forthcoming. I was to be ordained a priest on the 23rd of November and the ordaining bishop was Cardinal Arganginin who was an Armenian. He in fact was to ordain Kevin and and Jeff Robinson two years later. Cardinal Arganginin, he was Armenian. he was a brilliant man had lived quite a longtime in Rome, was a great linguist and so forth and he was a one of the favourites, you know to be elected Pope to succeed Pius the 12th. So the conclave I remember went in on the 25th of October which was a Saturday and we knew that if Arganginin was going to be elected it would be fast because it favoured Is not elected quickly, there’s a compromise.
Anyway, as I say the Cardinals went in on the 25th, which was a Saturday afternoon. Nothing happened Saturday evening Sunday, Monday Tuesday morning. We just felt that perhaps it’s got to be got to be now. So we went down to the pizza to the square at Saint Peter’s Square on Tuesday evening. I was with Kevin and sure enough what we were standing there and there’s quite a crowd a large crowd had gathered because I think there a sort of a feeling that this is it and sure enough little wisps of white smoke came out of the flu, you know above the roof of the Sistine Chapel. So we knew I said the great excitement and it’s so dramatic, you know, the you know, the when you see that white smoke, everybody gets so excited and all the lights, you know, illuminate the facade of Saint Peters and anyway, the doors behind the Loggia the balcony that looks over Saint Peter’s Square opened and out comes this Cardinal.
I remember an old man that and told us the news and I didn’t quite pick up the name, but it was Cardinal Roncarlli and it was it was really a surprise I think to all of this, but I really didn’t know anything about him outside heard the name. I knew that he’d been a Vatican Diplomat for most of his life and that he was the patriarch of Venice for the last five years, but that was it. But the important thing about him was that he was old. He was almost 78 I think. So out he came this dumpy happy little fellow, you know, such a contrast to his predecessor and so forth and and I remember walking back with Kevin and there was a student from the North American college next door who is with us and and we were saying oh dear idea, you know, he’s an old man. The feeling was he’s going to be a stopgap an interim Pope and I’ve never forgotten this American student said to me he said, you know, I’ve heard certain things about this this man. He might surprise us. Prophetic words they were indeed.
Anyway, I was duly ordained on the 23rd of November, which was a Sunday at half past five in the morning and I might add because that particular day the 23rd of November John was installed as the bishop of Rome in the Basilica of John Lateran, and the ceremony was to begin at 9 o’clock. So Cardinal (..) had to be there had to ordained us early. So we were ordained at 5:30 in the morning and next day for my first mass I celebrated it in the chapel of the hospital of A Little Company of Mary and it’s called the Santo Stefano Rotondo because it’s right next door to a very ancient Roman Church called St Stephen in the round because it’s its shape in the round and Kevin assisted me at my first mass and as we know Kevin had it had a presence a sort of serenity a calmness is over with and you know to having there beside me at that first met with my back, of course to the gathering and my mother was in the gathering and of course, you know the fiddleback chasuble and the Biretta and all that sort of thing. But Kevin was there to make sure I got through it and that I did it right and for me it became in a certain sense emblematic of our the fact that you know, he was always a supporter, you know an encourager.
He had as I say a solidity about him and so not surprising when I you know heard at the funeral the other day the beautiful the beautiful homely of a given by Monsignor Woods you know and in the how how he mentored some of you know, our young students and young priests and so forth. Anyway, that was on the 24th of November the following Sunday the 30th of November Pope John actually came to our College, you know to celebrate Mass. I didn’t think he came because he had heard that he’d sort of disrupted our timetable on ordination day. He loved Propaganda College. And anyway after the mass in the typical Italian style we had a reception and the choir song and Kevin was in the choir. I accompanied them on the piano, but they we sang the pilgrims chorus from Wagner’s Opera Tannhauser about these pilgrims are coming to Rome in Pennant and so forth then they laying down the you know, their their program staffs and looking at Rome and sort of having come to the Journey’s End on this pilgrimage alerted to the beauty of Rome.
Looking back we thought you know how sort of even prophetic that was for us, you know that at the time, you know, we this is pre-vatican II we you know, we thought of Churches the perfect society and everything was solidly structured and unchangeable and so forth and then soon we were to sort of hear a whole new vocabulary to describe the church and it’s a people of God and there’s a pilgrim people, you know, and here we hit was the choir, you know on the 30th of November, you know, seeing you know in the presence of John the 23rd about a pilgrim Pilgrim Church, and of course sure enough the following January the 25th of January, which is the Feast of the conversion of Saint Paul were all out at the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the walls and John was there at Pope goes to that Basilica every 25th of January the Feast of the conversion of Paul and it was there that he told us we were going to have a general counsel and I can remember walking back, you know from from the Basilica back to the cottage and we were thinking that what’s all this about?
That because you know, we didn’t expect that we needed one, you know. Anyway, and of course now the rest is history and when I came back home in October 1960 and Kevin was ordained on the 31st of December in 1960 with Jeff Robinson and others and and he then stayed on in Rome to do and studied Canon law until 1964. So he was actually in Rome for the first two sessions of the council, so that was another dominant thing in Kevin’s life because he was in a story and by by intellectual temperament really and and so they Council meant so much to him and I can remember might have been last year talking to him on the phone and I think at that time too, he was writing little articles about the council for the Catholic Voice. I know he was writing little pieces about the Council but he was telling me that he was reading at the time, you know, the ‘My Journal at the Council’ by Yves Congar who was a French Dominican and you know, probably the most important Theologian, you know who attended the Council and he kept this daily diary and and it was published and Kevin was reading it and it was a thousand pages, you know, but he was lapping it up, you know. It sort of engrossed him, you know, it was right up his alley to read that sort of thing, you know about the council.
Just to conclude the last time I spoke to Kevin was about a little over a month ago because the 4th of February and it was the the anniversary of the dedication of Saint Christopher’s Cathedral. And I rang him up because I was the administrator at Saint Christopher’s in 1971 and 1972. And then when Archbishop Cahill decided to extend Saint Christopher’s which was just a half in his Parish church and never intended to be a cathedral we had to get out and so I went off to Paris for a year to study at the Institut catholique with some French priests and who’d been ordained before the Vatican Council and the course was designed to bring us up to speed as it were because we were we were bit antiquated in a sort of post Vatican day as and Kevin took over as the administrator in 1972.
And so he oversaw the extension of St Christopher’s and he was quite the right man to do it, of course. Although he tells me that Archbishop Cahill went down there practically every day and that he thinks he might have touch practically every brick that was put into the extension. But when I rang him, you know five weeks ago and chatted him to him about the dedication of the cathedral, He told me that because I was in Paris that there’d been a drought not as severe as the one we’ve just had but it was a fairly severe drought and but anyway at the dedication ceremony, there were alot of Bishops and I think even a couple of Cardinals from overseas who were on their way to a Eucharistic Congress in Melbourne. This was in 1973. And they were all gathered there in the cathedral for the thing and he said there was a terrific violent thunderstorm sort of I don’t know where that break the drought but this he said they’re in the cathedral and this is thunder and lightning so forth and we joke because we’re back in 1870 when the infallibility of the pope is defined in St Peters, there was a terrific thunderstorm, you know, and we thought here we have so even at the dedication of the cathedral in Canberra our thoughts went back to Rome and and among those who were gathered in St Christopher’s for their dedication was a Cardinal call Karol Wojtyla who was to become Pope John Paul II. and Kevin actually met him that’s in the front of the cathedral. He’s got he had a photo of him, which I think he treasured of their meeting you know, and welcomed Wojtyla who is to become John Paul the second.
When I looked at the service for his requiem on last Wednesday, I noted that the end of his piece about his life called Grace life at the very end. He says I have been very happy close to God my family and my Priestly friends. Thank you for being here pray for me. And there’s words. I don’t know made me think of some Thomas Moore and Kevin loved Tudor history and you know the time of Henry VIII had dissolution of the monasteries and I know that he’d read two volumes of the trilogy on Thomas Cromwell written by Hilary Mantel. And in fact, I think he might have been listening to the third volume which he couldn’t read as an audiobook might have been the last thing in fact that he was reading in that way. And but anyway, it made me think of Thomas More because for Kevin, Thomas was a hero and he had our wonderful print of the portrait of Thomas More by Holbein which he had hanging in his place. And of course it was Thomas Moore who in his last letter to his daughter Meg wrote the words, “may we meet merrily in heaven,” you know, and and I thought, that’s what Kevin would be saying may we meet merrily in heaven? And in fact, I’ve got to say the last time that I saw him, you know face-to-face it was that was the retreat last November and and one of the last thing he said to me Hilton what wonderful things await us.
So may we all meet merely in heaven, you know and celebrate enjoying gratitude the wonderful things that await us.