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It was quite a gathering for Mildred Nevile’s funeral today. The packed church of St Joan of Arc in Highbury included a ‘who’s who’ of the Justice and Peace world: two former Directors of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR – now Progressio) – Ian Linden and Christine Allen; CAFOD’s current Director Chris Bain and former Director Julian Filochowski, plus Bishop John Rawsthorne of Hallam who was CAFOD Chair for many years; Pax Christi’s Director Pat Gaffney and President Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham; Alison Gelder, the Director of Housing Justice, and her predecessor at the Catholic Housing Aid Society, Robina Rafferty; Cathy Corcoran, Director of the Cardinal Hume Centre; Louise Zanre of the Jesuit Refugee Service UK. Justice and Peace workers from Westminster and dioceses further afield - including Portsmouth, Hallam and East Anglia - were scattered throughout the church. Liturgist Bernadette Farrell was there, and Josephine Siedlecka of Independent Catholic News. Faces from the London Catholic Workers, Columban Missionaries, and Church Action on Poverty mingled with family and with local parishioners who knew Mildred through the St. Joan of Arc CAFOD group and RCIA programme. The heartfelt – and at times emotional - homily by the parish priest and principal celebrant, Fr Gerard King, demonstrated that she was indeed “a light in this parish”.
He was also the first to point out that Mildred had a distinguished career over her long life of 85 years. She was Director of CIIR for 18 years until 1985 and a CAFOD Board member and trustee for several decades, but her influence over social justice activity in Britain more generally was rightly applauded. Much of this was picked up in Julian Filochowski’s excellent post-Communion tribute at today’s Mass, which received spontaneous applause as he concluded. Yet, all of us had our own recollections of Mildred running through our heads throughout the service.
For myself, I first met Mildred exactly 30 years ago when I joined the CAFOD staff. The Social Teaching of the Church hadn’t really featured at all in my Catholic education, particularly the imperative to move beyond charity and promote Justice and Peace. A completely fresh perspective was opened up by CAFOD and CIIR work. I still have on my shelf the little booklet, Taking Sides, written by South African theologian Albert Nolan, and produced by CIIR in 1983. It talked about the importance of being on the side of the poor if we want to be on God’s side, suggesting that, “anything else is siding with oppression and injustice”. Wow! This and other publications in the famous CIIR ‘Comment’ series opened the eyes of many – including me – to the extent of structural injustice in the world and the enormous struggles of church people from South Africa to Central America to the Philippines to tackle it. This was underlined by visits to Britain in the 1980s of Church heroes from the global south – such as Archbishops Denis Hurley and Helder Camera, and Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns. The point is that Mildred was strategic in offering solidarity to Catholic leaders struggling for Justice and Peace in their countries, and educating Christians in Britain about their situations. She played a key role in pushing people beyond their anxiety over ‘Marxist’ analysis to recognise that we shouldn’t shy away from social analysis and theological reflection from the basis of faith, then leading to action. Back in the 1980s, work to tackle apartheid, for example, alarmed many church people who feared getting too political but Mildred was amongst those gently guiding us to engagement. Julian reminded today that Mildred was a major influence in CIIR and CAFOD moving into development education.
When she retired from CIIR, Mildred was ever more closely involved with the National Justice and Peace Network for England and Wales, which she had helped found around 1970. The 1988 annual conference in Liverpool was ground-breaking in that it focused on poverty in Britain, and Mildred was its spiritual director. During her interventions that weekend, she just wouldn’t let go of the main thread emerging at the conference that people felt the Catholic Church in England and Wales needed a ‘home’ version of CAFOD to do the background research and advocacy on home poverty issues. This seemed completely improbable at the time from a resourcing point of view. At the final plenary Mildred came back to this again in her firm but gentle way and called for suggestions for a process to set the ball rolling. I think to everyone’s surprise, Bishop James O’Brien, auxiliary in Westminster and episcopal liaison for Justice and Peace, stood up and responded to the invitation. He promised to bring the recommendation back to the bishops’ conference, and indeed a process was set in motion which eventually led to the formation of the Catholic Agency for Social Concerns in 1995. Its first Director was Anne Forbes, a great friend of Mildred’s, and – as she acknowledged today - a close collaborator in the mission of justice and peace over many years. This bishops’ conference agency has now grown into the Catholic Social Action Network.
Mildred was a solid support to a whole variety of social justice initiatives over the years. Last year, for example, she attended the 25th anniversary event of the Columban newsletter ‘Vocation for Justice’. But perhaps what sticks most in my mind was walking with her at an event in December 2000 to close the ‘Jubilee 2000’ campaign for the cancellation of the debt of poor countries. The big development agencies were going back to running their individual debt campaigns and so the collaboration that was incredibly successful in raising awareness all over the world was ending. The evening involved a walk down Whitehall and a celebration of achievements at Trafalgar Square. Mildred and I were agreeing that any justice campaign can’t really have a cut off point, despite the theme of the evening, when she said, “Ellen, it’s all our lives’ work”.
In her later years Mildred moved into spiritual direction, particularly with Pax Christi. I remember her leading lunchtime reflections on non-violence at St. Ethelburga’s in the City of London. At the one I attended, around 15 of us seemed plucked from the noisy business world around us to a quiet reflection led by a person of deep personal spirituality and skill. One colleague said of her, “as a free agent, with no office to defend or orthodoxy to protect, she brought an invaluable sense of space to the process of exploring one's relationship with the divine, particularly for those whose thirst is not quenched by churchgoing”. This person added that “though she had tradition at her fingertips, she had a thoroughly modern outlook”.
But getting back to the funeral, Julian reminded us in his talk that Mildred never let the “periodic follies” of the hierarchy get her down. I remember her once telling me that ignoring the recommendations of the Liverpool Pastoral Congress of 1980 was “disastrous” for the Church in Britain, but, as Julian recalled Mildred reminding him, “we belong to a Christ-centred Church”. Julian spoke about the need to look for and train a new generation of Mildreds to continue the mission of the Church to promote Justice and Peace. Her spirit will certainly continue to touch and inspire those of us who knew her to a positive outlook and undaunted dedication. Countless thousands internationally mourn her loss, and were an invisible presence at her funeral.
Many of us last saw Mildred at CAFOD’s 50th anniversary Mass back in January, where she read the first reading from Isaiah 61 about bringing good news to the poor. How very appropriate! As Julian put it, Mildred’s life journey has been “a life committed to the marginalised and impoverished of this world”.
See Julian Filochowski's tribute here: http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=21036