The Most Rev Bruno Heim

Vatican diplomat and champion of Basil Hume

Wednesday 26 March 2003 01:00
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Bruno Bernard Heim, priest and diplomat: born Olten, Switzerland 5 March 1911; ordained priest 1938; consecrated bishop 1961; Apostolic Delegate to Scandinavia 1961-69; Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Finland 1966-69, to Egypt 1969-73; Apostolic Delegate to the Court of St James's 1973-82, Apostolic Pro-Nuncio 1982-85; died Olten, Switzerland 18 March 2003.

Bruno Heim was the Vatican's diplomatic representative in Britain between 1973 and 1985, and played a crucial role in the appointment of a generation of Roman Catholic bishops in the country. He will, though, perhaps best be remembered as a passionate and talented expert on heraldry, who designed coats of arms for the last four popes.

During his 12 years in London, relations between the Vatican and Great Britain improved considerably, culminating in 1982 in a visit by Pope John Paul II. Just before the visit, the two states established full diplomatic relations, and Heim, whose rank had previously been Apostolic Delegate, was upgraded to the status of Apostolic Pro-Nuncio. He was inordinately proud to have been the first since the Reformation to be so honoured. He was also proud of the role he played in ensuring that the Pope's visit, which had been threatened by the outbreak of war in the Falkland Islands, went ahead.

Heim was born and brought up in Switzerland and was invited to join the Holy See's diplomatic corps after working as a chaplain to Italian prisoners during the Second World War. Among his earlier postings was a spell in Paris as secretary to the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Angelo Roncalli – later Pope John XXII. The two remained close friends until the pope's death in 1963. Heim also served in Scandinavia and Egypt before his appointment to Britain.

As a diplomat in London, he mingled effortlessly with courtiers and aristocrats. He was an enthusiastic cook and gardener, and an entertaining and flamboyant host, often flattering guests by designing heraldic emblems for them. The Queen Mother was among those invited to sample his hospitality at the nunciature, the official residence in Wimbledon, and became a personal friend. On his last visit to England in June 2001, he was, as a non-EU national, stopped and questioned by an over-enthusiastic immigration official about the purpose of his visit. "On Friday I am having lunch with the Queen Mum," he pronounced, to the delight of his companions and the consternation of the official.

His retirement from the Vatican's diplomatic corps in 1985 prompted – perhaps uniquely for a diplomat but certainly uniquely for a Vatican diplomat – a leader in The Times. This lauded his achievements, singling out his influence in the appointment of a succession of bishops who were more progressive than the hierarchy had been previously. He had been, The Times said, "tact personified". His retirement was also marked by a lunch in his honour at Lambeth Palace, hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.

While in London, Heim had employed unorthodox techniques in seeking recommendations for appointments of new bishops. In a diocese with a vacancy he would let it be widely known that he welcomed the views of all Catholics, as well as seeking the opinions of the clergy and other bishops. He would also consult leaders of other churches.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, once revealed that he had been consulted by Heim in 1976 about the appointment of a new Archbishop of Westminster, following the death of Cardinal John Heenan. Coggan said that Heim had "courteously asked" who he thought should occupy this important position. He later wrote: "This must surely have been the first time since the Reformation that such a discussion had taken place." The Anglican prelate also revealed that he had only one suggestion to make – the then Abbot of the Benedictine monastery at Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, Basil Hume, whom he had known since his days as Archbishop of York.

During his time in Britain, Heim was responsible for advising Rome on the appointment of 19 bishops, but it was the appointment of Hume to Westminster that he saw as his greatest moment. The announcement, Heim later wrote, was a surprise – "and it was intended to be a surprise". He had received 95 names from which he had to settle on just three to forward as "eligible candidates" to Rome. "I think my best achievement in 12 years of mission to London was to propose the Abbot of Ampleforth," Heim wrote. "What more can I say?"

He remained in awe of Hume, and in his retirement asked a friend in England to send him copies of all the books written by the cardinal in whose appointment he had played such a key role.

He was popular with bishops in Britain for his determinedly non- interventionist stance. He trusted those who had been appointed to get on with the job they had been given and was always reluctant to meddle. He was always pastorally minded and took care to meet bishops or priests who had written to him with problems – usually inviting them to come and discuss the matter over lunch.

Although always publicly loyal to the teaching of the Catholic Church on controversial issues such as birth control and abortion, privately he would express exasperation, muttering, "The Vatican should stay out of people's bedrooms for the next 20 years."

He enjoyed the British sense of humour. He was the titular archbishop of Xanthus, a now-defunct see in Asia Minor, and if people ever asked him where Xanthus was, he would say: "Most of it is in the British Museum."

He wrote three books on heraldry. Heraldry in the Catholic Church, first published in 1978, has become the standard reference work in ecclesiastical heraldry. Armorial Liber Amicorum was published to mark his 70th birthday in 1981, also the centenary of the birth of Pope John XXIII. It was like a guest book for special friends, he said, containing emblems he had proposed for, among others, Harold Wilson, Dame Agatha Christie and Margaret Thatcher. (Agatha Christie's emblem featured an axe, dripping with blood, and a quill pen, Thatcher's an iron hammer smashing the Russian sickle, Wilson's a pipe.)

In 1994 Heim published Or and Argent, examining the ancient heraldic rule against placing silver and gold next to each other, and suggesting that the reasoning behind the rule was suspect, and presenting more than 300 coats of arms in which the rule had been broken.

His own heraldic designs, although regarded perhaps as maverick by English heraldic traditionalists, will live on, especially those of Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II. The design for John XXIII went through at least four drafts before receiving papal approval. In Heim's first design, John XXIII thought that the lion Heim had drawn looked "too fierce" – the redesign therefore featured a smiling lion.

When, in 1978, the new Polish pope, John Paul II, asked that his coat of arms include a large letter M (for Mary – to signify his devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus), Heim told him that single letters were not normally allowed in heraldic designs. The pope insisted. Heim did some more research – and found a tradition of Polish heraldry that did incorporate letters. The M was restored, and the new pope was happy.

Paulinus Barnes

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