Dust to Dust

POST BY DPreston

Bernard Hall SJ shares memories at Leo Arnold's funeral mass
Bernard Hall SJ shares memories at Leo Arnold's funeral mass

Fr Provincial Dermot Preston SJ has just returned from the funeral of Leo Arnold SJ.  In the last year Leo had been living in the Peter Canisius retirement community close to the Jesuit Curia, but for much of his apostolic life he had been based at the Biblicum in Rome. Leo was an Arabic scholar and in the early 60’s was assigned to Beirut; but in the mid-70s, with the onset of the civil war in Lebanon, he was re-missioned to Rome. Leo was a frequent summer visitor back to the UK doing supplies, giving people such his contemporary, Paul Hackett, a much-needed break.

Fr Provincial writes;

A few months before I finished as Regional Superior in Guyana, we buried Harold Wong in the Jesuit mausoleum in Georgetown. The graveyard is fragile: the coastal strip of Guyana is caught between the relentless and competing claims of the rainforest and ocean. The vegetation is always edging towards jungle status while the concrete mausoleum itself is losing its battle to stay afloat in the undulations and shifting terrain of the water-logged cemetery; already the ground-level of the mausoleum is submerged in the flooded soil. For Harold, although we were interring him into the land, there was always something akin to preparing him for a burial at sea.

Not so for Leo Arnold SJ when he was laid to rest in Rome a few days ago. There the Jesuit mausoleum is quiet, dry and immovable. The dust of centuries floats in the diffuse sunshine coming through the opaque glassed cupola which channels through the three floors of bodies. The Jesuit chapel-of-ease in the massive Campo Verano necropolis is the place where, for hundreds of years, Jesuits who have died in Rome have been buried. The top floor is the preserve of the deceased Fathers General (and one rather unclassifiable Jesuit, the ex-Cardinal Billot) but the ground floor is the first stage of the process of burial, and it was there in the later morning of 5th July 2017 that I went with a small group of Jesuits from the Biblicum to take Leo’s body for interment.

When we arrived, and the gates of the vault were unchained, the workman just happened to be close by; so we stayed and quietly watched the simple process of entombment – a marble slab was removed to reveal an empty chamber into which Leo’s lead-lined and welded metal coffin was expertly lifted the 7 feet from the floor and slotted into the wall. The heavy marble slab was then replaced, gently tapped into position with the handle of a hammer and stabilised by small wooden wedges to await the final mortaring seal. We said a short prayer. This space will be home for about 20 years and then the remains will be removed, the coffin recycled and Leo’s dust will be placed in the cellar of the mausoleum.

Our official day had begun in the Chapel of St Francis Borgia on the ground floor of the Jesuit Curia. James Hodkinson and myself joined the Jesuits from Rome at Leo’s 10am requiem which was presided over with delicate solemnity by Fr Steve Pisano, the superior of the Biblicum community. Unfortunately Leo’s brother (a Benedictine from Buckfast) and a nephew, had hoped to attend but couldn’t do so given the quickness of the Roman rituals; but despite the time of year, when many Jesuits are away from Rome, the chapel was comfortably full with a broad cross-section of friends and colleagues.

Bernard Hall had been laid-low with a bug for a few days before but was determined and successful in being present for the requiem. In an impromptu addendum to Steve Pisano’s homily, Bernard Hall recalled that he and James H and Leo (all contemporaries of the intake of 1946) had last been in the Borgia chapel together in 1970 – at the funeral of Br Vincent Cookson who had collapsed and died while in Rome at the canonisation of the Forty Martyrs.

Everyone recalled Leo’s quiet humble companionship. It was good to be there.

May he rest in peace.