Obituary of Cardinal Basil Hume
THE DEATH at the age of 76 of George Basil Hume, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, has deprived the Catholic Church and the world of a truly outstanding religious leader. The characteristic serenity and cheerfulness with which he endured his last days came not many weeks after his announcing that he had been diagnosed as suffering from cancer, which he hoped to survive until the millennium. It is not in its early stages, he said in his last letter to the clergy of Westminster. Above all, no fuss.
In the event, though earlier than expected, it was almost a choreographed departure: the retirement that he had long looked forward to ? indeed, planned and pined for. In that sense his death is more a fulfilment than a loss; and among those close to him towards the end, his own obedient resignation to the will of God made it easier to bear.
It was among his greatest achievements that in an increasingly secular age and in a predominantly Anglican culture, he cut through the veils of cultural and religious prejudice to show the reality of the Roman Catholic faith. This made it seem less alien and anachronistic to the English, more credible and attractive than it had been for a very long time. By this means he was able to operate sufficiently close to the high moral ground of public life to inject into national affairs a convincing sense of principle.
He was always listened to, rarely wrong. Hume stood up for the family, seeking the strengthening of divorce law in favour of marriage stability; he deplored the excesses of the Press; he took the national stage on such occasions as the Gulf War in 1991 and the death of Princess Diana in 1997. He fought long and hard to overturn one of the major miscarriages of justice of the twentieth century, the imprisonment of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven. His successful campaign led directly to a Royal Commission and then a major overhaul of the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
He once said he was not a prophet. Yet he was an early campaigner for the relief of the appalling burden of Third World debt; he saw the arms trade as a major international evil; he took up the cause of the homeless in London and the hungry abroad, and launched practical initiatives for them. He repeatedly urged the diminution, pending complete elimination, of nuclear weapons. Yet he stood apart from the politics of the day, even if he was tempted, without succumbing, by efforts to lure him into membership of the House of Lords.
He never forgot, nor let anyone else forget, that he was first of all a Benedictine monk, a member of an ancient religious order whose communities once dotted the English landscape and which built, among many other glories of the Gothic style, Westminster Abbey. There is nobody more English than an English Benedictine. At the same time he was also a heavyweight internationally, one of the most senior and respected cardinals of the international Church, who would have played a pivotal role in the next papal conclave had he lived to see it. Three times he visited Patriarch Alexis of Moscow, twice with Cardinal Danneels of Belgium, once on his own, and their conversations undoubtedly eased tensions between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church in Russia. During his time as president of the Council of European Bishops? Conferences he was able to play a role as a representative of European Catholicism with a different style from the Vatican. In that capacity he organised and presided over two European symposiums on evangelisation
He shared completely Pope John Paul?s stress on human rights, never failing to include the unborn in those needing to be safeguarded. It was in this area that he had his one serious misgiving about the statement The Common Good and the Catholic Church?s Social Teaching, an influential intervention in British political life before the last election which marked a coming of age of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. It was published in 1996 with a foreword by Hume and launched by a televised press conference which he handled with his usual stylishness. But on reflection, he said afterwards, he wished it had been even tougher over abortion.
The award of the Order of Merit, which he went recently to collect in person from the Queen at Buckingham Palace (leaving his sickbed to do so), seemed no more than he deserved but was also an extraordinary tribute, seen against the background of English history. The task of following so eminent and godly a figure will be a daunting one. Such shoes are not easily filled.
George Hume ? Basil was his monastic name ? was born on 2 March 1923 in Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was the son of a distinguished doctor from the Borders (an Anglican), Sir William Hume, and a Frenchwoman, Marie Tisseyre, daughter of a distinguished military family. He had one brother, John, a doctor like their father, who died in 1993; and three sisters who survive him, Madeleine, Frances and Christine. It was a lively household: French was the domestic language. His parents had met in France during the First World War. This typical Englishman was therefore half French and a quarter Scottish; untypically of the English, he was bilingual. He later recalled seeing the results of the Great Depression in the poverty and homelessness that afflicted Tyneside in the 1920s and 30s, and being moved by a sense of solidarity and indignation. He felt even then the stirrings of his religious vocation. He went to preparatory school and thence to Ampleforth College, the Benedictine foundation in north Yorkshire, where he excelled at sport and thrived as a scholar, especially in languages and history (he put himself as being about average among the brighter boys).
IT was in wartime that he first sought admission to the Benedictine Order, half expecting (and even hoping) that the role of Catholic priest in such a violent world could include some form of martyrdom. After the war, a history degree at Oxford, and a further theological degree at Fribourg, Switzerland, he settled down at Ampleforth as monk, master and then housemaster, having been ordained priest in 1950. He also coached the rugby First XV (which he had previously captained as a boy). He progressed from language teacher to head of modern languages (discounting Latin, his third best language was German). These were his happiest years ? he said later he was starting to worry at that time that his life was too good to last.
What was completely lacking from his makeup ? a powerful advantage in dealing with those who had it ? was personal ambition. He admitted the one thing he missed from his life was marriage. But he saw priestly celibacy as God?s gift to the Church, enabling the clergy to be there for others at all times of the day and night. It was, nevertheless, a permanent psychological cross to bear, giving him a sense of openness and vulnerability that made him so attractive. But he was no prude. He knew the language of the locker-room, even if he almost never used it.
He was elected abbot in 1963, the head of a community of 150 monks. Many of them ran parishes in the inner cities of northern England, and he became their friend as well as their superior. It was his task to hold the community together through the reforms and updating of the Catholic Church brought in by the Second Vatican Council. It needed all his skill to navigate a way through the opposing currents of opinion, doing what he knew had to be done without alienating those opposed to the changes. It was a good preparation for what was to follow.
He became gradually better known in the region, even coming to the attention of the Archbishop of York, Donald Coggan. The Archbishop was at Canterbury by the time the vacancy at Westminster arose on the death of Cardinal Heenan, and he put word about that he knew an abbot who would make an excellent candidate. By then Hume had helped to expand the Ampleforth network with a daughter community in Missouri; and opened a special house at Ampleforth for boys of the Greek Orthodox faith. He had also come to the attention of several prominent Catholic lay people such as William Rees-Mogg and Norman St John Stevas, who with the Duke of Norfolk felt the need for a change of style after Heenan.
AT the time of his surprise appointment in 1976, he was the archetypal public-school Oxford-educated English gentleman ? charming, decent, self-deprecating, with a rounded culture, a sense of fun and a modicum of eccentricity. The fact that he was captain of the rugby First XV while a sixth-former at Ampleforth revealed not just the sportsman and competitor in him but also the leader. As one near-contemporary remarked of the man one day to become president of the Catholic Bishops? Conference of England and Wales as well as of the Council of European Bishops? Conferences: He was captain of more or less everything. This English-gentleman side of Hume was a capital asset in dealing with Vatican prelates, for he was able to present himself to them as one who understood the complex national character and culture of the English far better than they.
That is not the way we do things in England became a trade-mark of his, to ward off policies and approaches which were unlikely to endear themselves to the Catholic Church at home. It fell to him by such tactics to manage the sensitive relationship between the fears of the papacy and Roman Curia that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were running out of control, and the impatience of many English priests and lay people to complete the council?s vision as fully and as effectively as possible. The fact that the two forces have been held together, and that the Catholic community is united, while managing, overall, to be both liberal in style and orthodox in faith, is a tremendous compliment to Hume?s patient, wise and good-humoured leadership. The contrast with so many other local Churches was striking.
The papal visit of 1982, at the height of the Falklands conflict, was a triumph for Hume?s style and an endorsement of it. He saw that the Pope was properly briefed and the people properly prepared; and the Pope subsequently talked of this one visit as a model never quite matched elsewhere.
This success was one of the many fruits of Hume?s productive relationship with Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool, whom he came to rely on and admire, but with whom he was never completely at ease. These two led the bishops? conference, Hume supplying the inspiration and directing the broad thrust, Worlock running the machine.
The belief that it was possible to be totally English and totally Catholic had been dimmed during what some saw as the ghetto years of the first half of the twentieth century. This was a time when, under indifferent leadership (with the possible exception of Hinsley), English and Welsh Catholicism had been allowed to become obsessively inward-looking. The remarkable boldness of Pope Paul VI?s appointment of the abbot of a Benedictine monastery in north Yorkshire, whose name was associated with one of the best independent boarding schools in the land, had the power to transform both this image and the reality it represented. It revealed Vatican shrewdness at its best. That Hume was not such an outsider to the British Establishment was demonstrated by the fact that Sir John (later Lord) Hunt, already Secretary to the British Cabinet and Head of the Home Civil Service, was married to Hume?s sister Madeleine. Thus a ready-made network of contacts and influence was in place for him, both through these family connections and through the mafia of Ampleforth old-boys who had known and grown fond of him in his housemaster and abbot days.
For one of such background, Hume was remarkably successful at transcending class divisions, and there was never a Hume clique or kitchen cabinet drawn from such upper-crust circles. One of his closest friends and advisers became Mgr George Leonard, a rough-hewn northerner from Shrewsbury diocese, who kept Hume?s thinking in touch with the feelings and opinions of ordinary parish clergy.
These were not always the easiest of men to deal with. They had reservations at having a monk, unused to running parishes, as Archbishop of Westminster. But they warmed to his enthusiasm for the Catholic school system in the archdiocese, his major regrouping of which at sixth-form level led to some untidy and untimely confrontations with certain school governors and the Government. They admired his devotion to the poorest of the poor on his own doorstep, especially the down-and-outs who clustered round (and even inside) Westminster Cathedral itself. (One of them once called out to him: Cardinal, I am wearing your old trousers! and indeed he was.) He held regular meetings with the clergy which were filled with good humour; and he supplied them all with an ex-directory telephone number straight to his own desk. But the Catholic priesthood had been losing some of its brighter and more adventurous representatives under Heenan, and Hume never found the secret of reversing that trend, though he slowed it.
Similarly the advance of the Catholic laity into the middle class, largely a success story for the Catholic education system, seemed to go hand in hand with a decline in baptisms, marriages and habitual Mass-going, and hence a steady drop in church numbers. Europe-wide forces were at work here well beyond Hume?s control. But he understood the need for a new accommodation between the officers of the Church and an articulate and sometimes critical laity. He encouraged adult educational and catechetical initiatives, and gave his full support to the National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool in 1980, despite rumblings from some conservatives. Far from blocking discussion of the 1968 papal encyclical banning contraception, Humanae Vitae, he listened to the debates with open-minded attention. When the congress resolved to ask Rome for some development in that teaching, it fell to Hume to take the message to the Synod on the Family in Rome later that year. In a private meeting with the Pope, he laid the report of the congress before him, open at the two pages on contraception, and asked him to read at least that part of it. The Pope took it from him, but put it aside.
IN the synod hall Hume made a memorable contribution, saying that in a dream he had seen that the insight behind Humanae Vitae, confirming the traditional teaching of the Church, was surely right. But the Church was like a pilgrim, searching for the way. There were signposts to help it. The right signs point the way, but signposts become weather-beaten and new paint is needed. . . . My dream became a nightmare, for I saw the wrong paint being put upon the signposts, and the last state was worse than the first. Worlock for his part attempted to raise the question of the pastoral treatment of divorced people who remarried.
Hume did not feel afterwards that the concerns the Catholic community of England and Wales had collectively aired at Liverpool had been given a fair hearing or adequate response. A more defensive approach in his leadership of the Church in England and Wales dates from this time. It was his aim to protect it from disruptive intervention by Rome, particularly in the appointment of bishops. In this he was very successful. But there was a cost: many of the proposals for reform advanced by the National Pastoral Congress with such enthusiasm were shelved. A sense of disappointment and disillusion lingered for long afterwards. Here is the largest area of uncompleted agenda remaining from Hume?s stewardship.
HE gave many interviews and made many broadcasts, most notably his 1984 Channel Four film Return of the Saints which he wrote and presented. His books included Searching for God (1977), In Praise of Benedict (1981), To be a Pilgrim (1984), Towards a Civilisation of Love (1988), Light in the Lord (1991), Remaking Europe (1994), Basil in Blunderland (1997) and The Mystery of the Cross (1998).
A crisis which could have done serious damage to all his work broke after the decision to ordain women in the Church of England in 1992. Hume sought and gained special dispensation from Rome to allow the ordination of married convert clergy. He gave a series of talks, open to any Anglican clergyman who was curious enough to attend. He did not entirely overcome the reluctance of some of his diocesan clergy to share his eagerness to admit former Anglican clergy to the Catholic priesthood. When he urged them on, saying in an interview in The Tablet that this could be the conversion of England they had all been praying for, he was perceived as striking an uncharacteristic note of Catholic triumphalism and he had to withdraw it quickly. He was usually extremely tactful towards the Church of England, though careful to manoeuvre so as not to have to play second fiddle to the resident of Lambeth Palace. He was street-wise enough to remark in reply to one question that where sex was concerned, celibacy and marriage are the only options.
In another connection, when asked if he regretted the British Government?s reliance on condoms in its strategy to resist the spread of AIDS, he replied he regretted it was thought necessary. He could be wily and non-committal when the occasion demanded it. Such questions he often described as googlies.
He supported admission of the Catholic Church to the new ecumenical instruments which superseded the British Council of Churches in the late 1980s, but only after he was satisfied that his own Church would receive equality of treatment and due respect for its principles. But when he stated in 1987 that the time had come for the Catholic Church in England and Wales to move from co-operation to commitment in its relations with other Churches, there was no doubt he meant it. After that point, there was a sense that Cardinal Hume had become common property, a source of great strength for all the Churches in Britain. His commitment was real, though he never felt it was a commitment to compromise.
That the transfer of Anglican clergy was managed without harming the overall good relations the Catholic Church had with the Church of England was largely due to the trust and respect in which he was held inside that sister Church. At awkward moments, the Archbishop of Canterbury could confide in him. He continued with George Carey the sort of public partnership he had developed first with Donald Coggan and then with Robert Runcie, though Hume did not always feel obliged to fall in with all Carey?s wishes. Attempts to make mischief between them were given short shrift, as when he rebuffed the Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who had left the Church of England and joined the Church of Rome, for saying that he privately regarded Carey with contempt.
Hume was a member of the Council for Christian Unity in Rome, and the work of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission in overcoming differences both pleased and surprised him. The ordination of women by the Church of England seemed to him an insuperable obstacle, however. He was keen to be seen as a friend to the Jewish community (and was indeed a personal friend of successive Chief Rabbis), and spoke sincerely and profoundly about the experience of visiting the concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland.
He came close to a reconciliation of his office with the Catholic homosexual community. His Note on the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning homosexual people is a classic example of a pastor going as far as possible to interpret Catholic doctrine creatively without denying it. In whatever context it arises, and always respecting the appropriate manner of its expression, love between two persons, whether of the same sex or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected, he wrote. When two persons love, they experience in a limited manner in this world what will be their unending delight when one with God in the next. But he was equally clear that physical expression of homosexual love was ruled out by the teaching of the Church, which no one could change because it was God-given. Last year, because of its perceived ambiguity in this area, Quest, the support group for Catholic homosexuals, was removed from the listing of approved organisations in the Catholic Directory, at his instigation.
If one skill defined Hume?s ministry, it was his management of extremes and the overcoming of splits and divisions. That undoubtedly reflected his background as a Benedictine abbot, for he regarded the Rule of St Benedict as the rule of his life. Though they are less abrasive than in some other Western countries, Britain has its relatively small band of ultra-conservative Catholic dissenters ready to attack their bishops publicly or denounce them secretly to Rome. A crucial test of Hume?s leadership came in 1996, therefore, when he accepted an invitation to address a meeting called by these conservative Catholic campaigners in London, the other main speaker being the American television evangelist and traditionalist crowd-puller, Mother Angelica. His carefully prepared remarks on that occasion amounted to a set of sure signposts for the safe and successful navigation of the minefield that modern Catholicism had become; and therefore they summed up his approach in general.
First, there was no going back on the Second Vatican Council: he quoted Pope John Paul II forcefully to that effect. Hence, contrary to the ultra-conservative case, loyalty to the Pope was incompatible with rejection of the Council?s reforms. Secondly, there was no loyalty to the Pope that was not also expressed in loyalty to the bishops. They too were Vicars of Christ. Thirdly, Catholics had a right to explore the mysteries of faith and they had no obligation to agree with each other about everything, though it was vital to remain in communion with the successor of St Peter and there would come a point where obedience was required. Fourthly, it was important never to damage another?s good name, never to be rude or insulting or seek to exclude people from the Church. He enjoined tolerance and charity. Those who made mistakes needed help and guidance, not public condemnation.
Above all, as he said time and again in speech after speech, what mattered was the cultivation of a personal relationship with the Lord. One of the chief ways to achieve this was through taking part fittingly in the celebration of Mass (Hume felt appropriate dignity and reverence were sometimes missing from the post-Vatican II liturgy). His concern for excellence in the Work of God translated itself into the world renown that the cathedral choir achieved while he was at Westminster, after having been rescued by him from the threat of closure at the outset. But Basil Hume also talked constantly and convincingly of the need for private prayer. It was clear to everyone that he spoke from profound personal knowledge.
THESE were his simple principles. By preaching them and exercising them with such transparent sincerity, even at times verging on a kind of unselfconscious gaucheness, he gradually conditioned the spiritual life of the Catholic community of England and Wales towards the goals set forth in the Second Vatican Council. He was a man of instinct and intuition rather than of strategy and policy. It was his intention, he said at the time of his installation as ninth Archbishop of Westminster, to animate rather than to dominate. To animate means to bring the soul to life, by the power of the Holy Spirit. All who met him found this to be the effect he had on them. Even those who did so only briefly never forgot the encounter. They were convinced he was their friend, and indeed he was. He was life-giving.
Click here for Tributes to the Cardinal, The Tablet 26 June, 1999