On the feast of Thomas More and John Fisher, I thought it fitting to consider one of their countrywomen, a tenacious and gentle advocate for the poor. Mildred Nevile was revered in British social justice circles, and her influence extended far beyond her home island and a comfortable upper-class upbringing. She died of cancer in 2012 after a long life as an activist and inspirational leader.
Mildred Nevile was born between world wars, raised in a well-off family, educated by a governess, and was inspired by her Confirmation to deeper involvement in her adult Catholic faith.
She joined the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) in 1958. That group had begun during WWII as a response to other Catholics who were more supportive of fascism on the Continent. Over the years, it morphed into an organization that focused its energies on disarmament and racism, as well as a host of social justice concerns.
In just nine years, Ms Nevile was named the secretary general of CIIR. She steered her colleagues away from the international political concerns and more to a focus on poverty and more fruitful development in the Third World.
Just as Vatican II was taking root in Britain, CIIR had a leader who, according to a colleague, had “tradition at her fingertips, (yet) a thoroughly modern outlook.”
She inspired activists, especially young adults, to tackle issues of injustice in Latin America (the corruption of the Brazilian government of the 70′s for example), southern Africa (the white supremacy rule in Rhodesia and South Africa, chiefly), and southeast Asia.
Recalling her 1973 visit to Asia she wrote, “What the Vietnamese wanted and needed was solidarity: justice, not charity. I became aware that aid without solidarity can be very untruthful: destructive to the giver and probably to the receiver too.”
John Heenan, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (1963-75), seemed to be nervous about Ms Nevile. (As he was about Gaudium et Spes.) But his successor Basil Hume, had a high regard for the CIIR head.
When I read Robina Rafferty’s obituary here, I was struck that Mildred Nevile had an enviable balance of tact, inner resolve, and outward serenity:
She had tremendous courage and a great freedom about her. She had no qualms about confronting those in power – whether in the secular or church world – but did it in a polite, well-mannered way that meant she had friends on all sides of the political spectrum, as well as among bishops and cardinals. Yet, she could be devastatingly sharp if they tried to ignore the evidence she presented. Her radicalism lived within a calm exterior that made it all more potent.
She retired from CIIR, now known as Progressio in 1985. She went to graduate school to earn a degree in theology. She was involved in her parish, mentored a new generation of activists, served many people as a spiritual director, and was attracted to Carmelite spirituality.
This tribute from Julian Folichowski at her funeral was also striking:
Whenever we vented that distress (about the Catholic hierarchy) Mildred would listen knowingly and sympathetically and usually share the frustration. But if the deflation of spirits continued for too long she would seek to revive in us a sense of hope and a determination to keep going even as the going got ever tougher. And if I ever became obsessed with the antics of prelates in Rome (which I admit I did from time to time) Mildred would quietly remind me that we belonged to a Christ-centred Church and that I should remember that it was God we worshipped not those who spoke to us about God.
Another sign of worthiness: knowing when to end the deflation.
Another comment from Robina Rafferty:
She had a tremendous gift for getting the best out of people, particularly the young. Whenever you worked with her you shared her sense of fun.
It occurs to me that this worthy woman, whom one colleague described as the “midwife of the Justice and Peace enterprise in (Britain)” had a keen balance and a reservoir of hope that never drained.
And while there’s no doubt the past half-century has given Catholics many reasons to get discouraged, clearly Mildred Nevile was able to maintain a sense of harmony and outward cheer that was inspiring to two generations. That “sense of fun” cited above is also telling. I mean worthy.