The following lecture was given by Father Athanasius McVay in the crypt of Westminster Abbey on 21st January 2023, the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the death of William Cardinal Godfrey, seventh Archbishop of Westminster and first exarch of Ukrainians in England & Wales.
It is not true that William Godfrey has been forgotten, for we are remembering him. Christians are an historical people, in that our faith is firmly rooted in the memory of God’s salvation wrought in human history. The Communion of Saints is the celebration of those who have reposed yet remain with us by Grace and through their enduring inheritance.
But it is true that professional historians have relegated Godfrey to oblivion. Comparing him to other Westminster Archbishops, Michael Walsh noted: “No one has ever written a biography of Cardinal William Godfrey, and it is highly unlikely that anyone ever will.” The public is dazzled by clamorous deeds, but Godfrey’s life and service was, for the greeter part, lived out of the public eye. He gave none of his time to writing memoires and much of his service to others remained unknown, obscured by a veil of discretion.
William Godfrey was beloved by the good and the needy, but he did not cut an attractive figure to fashionable, progressively minded sophisticates. He was a cautious comforter who spoke in the wartime cadence of sacrifice for the greater good, which the emerging Cool Britannia found inconvenient and even incomprehensible.
The impact of a person on history is judged by their whole life and not by particular episodes or periods. William Godfrey’s generous service spanned four decades, and with the opening of Vatican archival sources up to 1958, a greater portion of his robust activity can now be rescued from oblivion. Thus, this kind shepherd shall be restored to a proper place in history.
For this occasion, it is necessary to select aspects of Godfrey’s ministry that have remained obscured, and to pass over many of his better-known achievements. While we will omit the first half of his life, it is important to mark certain qualities, already evident as a young man, which led to success in later endeavours.
From his seminary days, we learn that William was a brilliant student but also one who was very human. He was musical, a wonderful mimic and storyteller but also a patient listener. He was popular among his peers yet reserved. As a professor, he was strict on principles but showed understanding to the many seminarians who sought his spiritual counsel. He was true, and thus deeply trusted by peers and students alike.
Serving as a mentor to future shepherds, his personal qualities also recommended him to diplomatic missions, the most important of which was Apostolic Delegate in Great Britain, the first papal representative in the realm since the Reformation. In 1938, rising tensions in Europe necessitated a direct channel of communication between the Holy See and His Britannic Majesty’s Government, a role for which, by his personality and Roman experience, Godfrey was aptly suited.
“London sent Osborne to Rome not because he was a powerful man but because he was a delightful man.” This was a description of Francis D’Arcy Osborne, British Minister to the Holy See, but it is equally apt to describe Willian Godfrey and hints at why he was chosen to be Apostolic Delegate in London. His delightful character enabled him to establish lasting contacts among people of all classes, with diplomats who called upon him frequently, and with the most notable in British political and ecclesiastical life.
As Derek Worlock later wrote, he possessed “great noblesse of spirit in counting among his friends from all walks of life, from dukes to sacristans and college servants, and even his critics remained his friends.” He was sensitive but had deep spiritual life and exuded serenity, even when everyone around him was in turmoil. He communicated warm and charitable ‘humanity’ and gentle fatherliness. Gerald Patrick O’Hara, who succeeded him as papal delegate, wrote: “It can be said that he, with his exemplary piety and correctness, placed the Pontifical Representation at the centre of Catholic life.”
Godfrey fulfilled the instructions received from Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli in the autumn of 1938: “Make sure to be encompassed by such a degree of consideration that those sentiments will always endure.” Although apostolic delegates are not accredited diplomats, HM Government trusted this discreet Englishman in confidential matters. The guest list of a private reception, given for him in 1942, read like a who’s who of British political and ecclesiastical life. As a result, his successor was welcomed like an ambassador by the Foreign Office, with a luncheon in the Commons and a private reception in the speaker’s chambers, the Prime Minister being in attendance.
The Government’s openness was not mirrored, at first, by the insular Catholic hierarchy, which had not been consulted on the appointment. In the early years, Godfrey had many occasions to experience the Johannine words, which he prayed each day at the end of Mass: In proprio venit, et sui eum non receperunt. But his kindness and diplomacy melted all reserve, and Godfrey quickly developed cordial, even close relationships with the bishops, especially his two immediate predecessors at Westminster, Arthur Hinsley and Bernard Griffin. At the height of London’s wartime suffering, Cardinal Hinsley wrote:
Your coming to us as Apostolic Delegate was a great consolation to me and a source of strength. I knew that in you I have a friend always ready to give me sympathy and help in all difficulties and trials. Let me thank you very heartily for your support and ready assistance.
The future Pius XII had instructed Archbishop Godfrey to maintain the least possible publicity as Apostolic Delegate. John Heenan accorded Godfrey faint praise in suggesting that he had “little impact in his robust years because as a diplomat he knew to keep silence.” On the contrary, now that Vatican files have been opened, we must correct Cardinal Heenan by affirming that: in his robust years, he had a great impact because he knew to keep silence.
Surprisingly, Godfrey made significant inroads in inter-church relations, which were, then, still proto-ecumenical in the Catholic Church. Godfrey’s ecumenism took the form of irenic social relations with Anglicans and Orthodox. He corresponded warmly with prelates such as Cosmo Lang, William Temple, George Bell, and at their request interceded for Orthodox prelates and Anglican chaplains interned in Axis-held territories. He met with them, informally, mainly at the Athenaeum, of which he became a member with the strong support of the Anglican primates.
On Good Friday 1944, during the German occupation of Rome, Archbishop Temple wrote a letter of solidarity to Pius XII which the besieged pontiff appreciated and acknowledged, through Godfrey, who wrote the following to the Anglican Primate:
I wish to tell you how deeply I appreciate the words which you were moved to write to me on the day which is so sacred and held in such grateful remembrance by all who love and follow Our Lord.
At the behest of the Dean of Westminster, Godfrey asked Cardinal Mercati, head of the Vatican Library, to initiate a search for the lost crucifix of Saint Edward the Confessor, which had been discovered during preparations for the coronation of James II, and subsequently given to the Pope by the Old Pretender. Although the quest proved fruitless, the Dean was very much indebted to Godfrey for having intervened.
The Apostolic Delegate also succeeded in helping several Anglo-Papalists to fulfil their spiritual quest. Sadly, the conviviality of the previous two decades cooled in the early the 1950s, when a shrill Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher became defensive, perhaps because the Catholic population was increasing while Anglican churchgoing was decreasing. Relations began to thaw after Fisher’s visit to Pope John XXIII, and they blossomed under his successor, spiritual giant Michael Ramsey.
As a result of William Godfrey’s noble diplomacy, the British Sovereign and the Roman Pontiff began addressing each other, for the first time in four centuries, through regular diplomatic channels. In 1956, the Queen sent an official delegation and formal letters to Pius XII on his 80th birthday and, the same year, started receiving the Apostolic Delegate at her reception for diplomats. In May 1959, Godfrey became the first English cardinal since Reginald Pole to be invited to dine with the Sovereign and was the first Archbishop of Westminster to have an official representative of the Monarch at his funeral. Nevertheless, his efforts to raise the apostolic delegation to the rank of inter-nunciature floundered on the reluctance of Catholic notables to press the issue, fearing a negative reaction from Canterbury.
William Godfrey also engaged with Orthodox Christians. After the First World War, Representatives of various Ukrainian factions established bases in London, one of which was Pavlo Skoropadsky’s Hetman Movement. Skoropadsky had been installed as Ukrainian head of state in 1918, by the occupying Austro-Germans. After the war, he set up in Berlin, but by the end of the 1930s he perceived that his strongest support came from Ukrainians in democratic Canada and the USA. As a result, the Hetman sent Danylo, his son and heir, to study in England.
Danylo’s avuncular advisor, Vladimir de Korostovetz, began a cordial correspondence with the Apostolic Delegate, thoroughly informing him about Ukrainians and their ongoing quest for self-determination. By January 1947, when Bishop Ivan Buchko came as Apostolic Visitor to establish the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church canonically, Godfrey surprized him with his knowledge of Ukrainian affairs.
Archbishop Godfrey furnished letters of commendation to representatives from Canada en route to the Continent to repatriate hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians, 30,000 of which arrived in Britain by 1949. The good Archbishop cared for and followed the progress of the fledgeling Ukrainian Catholic mission. He informed local ordinaries of the presence and spiritual needs of the new arrivals. He wrote to civil and military authorities to facilitate pastoral visitations to POW and refugee camps, and helped overcome bureaucratic obstacles so that Ukrainians could receive the ministration of their own clergy. He advocated for and acted as mediator between the missionaries and the local Latin Rite hierarchy. He petitioned the Holy See for spiritual and material assistance, and liaised with other nuncios to find lodgings and scholarships for Ukrainian university students.
At the end of 1948, Godfrey made use of Government contacts to block the deportation of 300 Ukrainians, who were too infirm to accept regular employment. In reply to hearty thanks from the president of Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, he replied: “It was not only a satisfaction but an honour to me to be of any service whatever to your good and sorely tried fellow-countrymen.”
Others have written on William Godfrey’s short term as Archbishop of Westminster. I shall confine my remarks to his role as Apostolic Exarch for Byzantine-Rite Ukrainians (and Belarusians to 1960), which he accepted a few months after coming here to Archbishop’s House.
Commenting on Godfrey’s enthronement as Exarch at the little church in Saffron Hill, named for Saint Theodore of Tarsus, onetime Archbishop of Canterbury, Apostolic Visitor Buchko commented:
That solemnity will be surely be noted in the pages of history, not only of the Ukrainian Catholic Church but also those of the Universal Church, during which unity and universality were magnificently resplendent upon English shores.
Unity and Universality, essential marks of Christ’s Church, is the reason why William Godfrey accepted this responsibility. The presence of Eastern Churches is not a luxury. It is an essential witness that the Universal Catholic Church is, by its very nature, a communion of particular Churches with their own law, spirituality, and distinct ritual traditions. Due to historical circumstances, the Latin Church became predominant around the world. Migrants did not have access to their own clergy and were forced to adhere to the Rite of their new land. Seeking to preserve and foster unity and faced with mass migration, the Universal Church discerned the necessity to preserve the Eastern Catholic Churches outside of their home territories.
But the Universal teaching was often perceived as burdensome or superfluous by local churches, as Cardinal Griffin wrote to Archbishop Godfrey in 1946: “An attempt was made during the time of my predecessors to send a priest of the Byzantine Rite to this country to set up a centre, and they strongly resisted.” Griffin also resisted, at first, but the Apostolic See was determined to protect Ukrainians and help them form a strong community in exile which, one day, would aid in the restoration of the Mother Church, after the defeat of the totalitarian regime imposed by Moscow.
National and cultural assimilation is an inevitable process, but religious and ritual assimilation are not and, as Griffin himself declared in The Catholic Herald, in 1948: Any attempt to integrate Ukrainians “would be one of defiance to the policy of the Holy See, which has ever demanded the fullest respect of all Catholics for the venerable Eastern rites.”
By the 1950s, Ukrainian Catholics demonstrated, not only that they had not been assimilated, but that they were preparing a new generation of British-born faithful and priests. This necessitated a permanent structure, and the universal ministry of the Roman Pontiff established Apostolic Exarchates in western Europe.
The first was to be in Britain, where the Ukrainian community had achieved a greater stability. Accordingly, the British hierarchy were consulted but felt that the structure was best managed within their Latin dioceses. They did not realize that they lacked the necessary knowledge and experience to properly govern an Ecclesia sui iuris that, although in full communion, was entirely distinct from their own. The Congregation for the Eastern Churches resolved the impasse by offering the position of Exarch to Cardinal Griffin, who accepted but died before the plan could be put into practice. The post was next offered to his successor. And this was providential for, among Roman Catholic churchmen in Britain, Archbishop Godfrey knew best and sympathized most with Ukrainians.
In accepting, William Godfrey understood that he was to provide the Exarchate with a good start and to prepare for a native successor. Until such time, he administered the Exarchate through a vicar general, he met with his Ukrainian clergy and community lay leaders and advocated to Rome for more priests. The Exarch visited Ukrainian churches in Wolverhampton, Bedford, Nottingham, blessed the campaign to build or acquire a cathedral, and donated generously toward this project and for a church in Coventry. During a visit to Saffron Hill, he remarked:
This building which is your church is small, but your hearts are great. You cleave so tenaciously to your national traditions, yet above all you remain so loyal to the Holy Catholic Church. It is a privilege to be associated as Exarch with people who have borne the heavy trial of exile and persecution.
Exarch Godfrey took steps to clarify discrepancies between his Latin and Byzantine clergy. The Exarchate was given its own listing in the Catholic Directory, distinct from ethnic chaplaincies of the Latin Rite. In June 1959, he issued a pamphlet entitled “Regulations of Canon Law Regarding Different Rites.” This practical guide explained that Eastern faithful could not change rites by attending a Latin Church. Catholic schools were reminded that Eastern children had received the Sacrament of Confirmation at Baptism. When our Society of St. John Chrysostom was brought back to life in 1959, the Cardinal and Exarch agreed, for himself and his successors, to be our patron.
Three months before his death, Godfrey wrote a dedication in a prayerbook for a priest freshly ordained at his hands, that concluded with the following words: Senex puerum portabat: puer autem senem regebat. The old man carried the child, but it was the child that led the old man. From the Office of the Purification, the verse recalls Simeon bearing the infant in his arms. Yet it was the Christ-Child who was leading the old man to fulfilment.
In this inscription, William Godfrey was identifying who he was: Despite later honours, he was first and foremost a priest, a humble servant of those in need. That verse also summarizes his role as Exarch. He accepted the burden to bring the fledgeling Ukrainian diocese into being and to protect its first steps. And within a short time, he handed it on to the next generation, just as he passed the torch, symbolically, to the young levite he had consecrated.
Cardinal Godfrey’s final act of discretion was to keep secret his last illness, so as not to distract from the vital work of the Second Vatican Council. As he lay dying, Archbishop Michael Ramsey set out to bid him farewell but, arriving too late, was the first person to offer condolences.
Five-thousand faithful came to honour and remember William Godfrey at the Cathedral where he spent many hours in prayer and present among his flock. There too, his Ukrainian auxiliary and soon-to-be the new Exarch, Bishop Augustine Hornyak, led the panakhyda office for the dead. This prompted an article in The Times entitled, “Two Dirges for Cardinal.” We have prayed that requiem again today, sixty years on, concluding with the very same prayer: O Saviour, make his memory endure forever.
This lecture was originally published at Father Athanasius’ blog Annales Ecclesiae Ucrainae.