truth and justice, says Peter Stanford. There should be no delay in opening his cause for canonisation
It isn't hard to guess what Basil Hume's reaction will be up in heaven — and if he isn't there, I can't believe in it anymore — to moves to have him canonised. For one who always stepped ever so reluctantly into the limelight, the prospect of a halo will definitely be not be an appealing one.
"When I got the news," he remarked of his surprise appointment to be Archbishop of Westminster in February 1976, "I was rather shattered, rather distressed." He had been called to the phone from the dining room at his beloved Ampleforth Abbey. "I must confess," he added, "I didn't enjoy the rest of the meal." If the late Cardinal has any influence with the powers on high, he will be urging that they lose his "sainthood file" as quickly and as discreetly as possible. Not wanting something, of course, can be a very attractive quality. It was one of the things that struck you most forcibly about Basil Hume. The reluctant Cardinal, doing the job out of a sense of duty and vocation, was a powerful figure. In a world where our political leaders talk endlessly about individual choice, and where the global economy is run on the basis of a single, Darwinian system, there is something remarkable about doing something you don't really want to du because you believe God is calling you and because you hope to help others. It makes you, in a phrase that Pope John Paul is fond of repeating, a sign of contradiction in this sceptical and secular age. There is certainly a dash of heroic virtue about it. Or, to put it another way, a hint of a very modern saint in the making. But there's that word again. Perhaps it would help instead to look at one of the more traditional qualities associated with saints. I was brought up on the idea that saints could intercede on your behalf with God. They were intermediaries with moral authority in the highest of circles. Basil Hume was certainly adept at playing the earthly equivalent. A few months before he died, shortly after he had announced that he had terminal cancer, I worked on a hurried BBC tribute documentary, recorded to he broadcast straight after his death. One of our interviewees was Annie Maguire. When she spoke of how the Cardinal had interceded on her behalf with the British Government and courts, she wept. He had been her last resort and he had not failed her. The cameraman made a technical mistake and we had to take it again. Just talking about Basil Hume brought tears to Annie's eyes again. Real, genuine ones. Annie Maguire, you may recall, was convincted in 1975 of running an IRA bomb-making factory in her home in Kilburn, north London, on the basis of dodgy forensic evidence. Six other members of her family were also jailed — including her 13-year-old son, Patrick, who unforgivably was sent to an adult prison. Because he was judged an IRA operative. no one bothered to protest. He had it coming to him. One of the Maguire Seven, Giuseppe Conlan, died in jail. They were all, we subsequently came to realise, innocent. In his book Justice and Truth, Paddy Victory, Basil Hume's advisor, records the fact that few in the British establishment were in any doubt right from the start that there had been a colossal miscarriage of justice in the case of the Maguircs, but that no one was prepared to tackle it because of the anti-Irish politi cal climate at the time and moreover, as Lord Denning famously remarked, to acknowledge that a mistake of such magnitude had been made in such a high profile case would bring the whole British justice syStem into disrepute. It was better, he judged, that innocent people should remain behind bars.
Basil Hume would have none of this trimming. He visited the Maguires, went out of his way to help young Patrick when he was released while his mother and father were still in prison, and took up their case with gusto. He interceded with the highest authorities in the land, putting every bit of his personal authority on the line to force those responsible to face up to the injustice that had been done to the Maguires. And he succeeded, earning their eternal gratitude. It was not a one-man crusade — he was joined by Roy Jenkins and Merlyn Rees, former Home Secretaries — but the Cardinal was at its head, risking precisely the sort of public ridicule and unpopularity that are a standard feature of most of the saints' tales I read in CTS pamphlets as a child. People argue about the Cardinal's legacy. Some feel that he could be indecisive or even autocratic — he was always an abbot, one disgruntled priest once complained to me — and so left his successors with difficult issues to handle. I disagree, but that is not the point. The discussion takes far too narrow a view of the man and lacks any perspective or distance. It certainly has little impact on the question of saintliness. That is why — in all but the most exceptional cases like Mother Teresa — the Catholic Church likes to take decades if not centuries in reaching a decision on such matters.
Much more influential in eventually judging Hume's legacy should be the man himself, his vision and his spirituality. All were immediately appealing. He carried with him to an extent that few churchmen and women manage today the impression that he was walking in God's shadow. It was an inspiring thing to behold. Take, for example, the manner of his death. He embraced his own end openly, revealed his diagnosis without inhibition, and spoke candidly about being at peace with God. He was, wrote his friend and former pupil, Hugo Young, "the only person of my acquaintance who did not appear to be at all afraid of dying". It was a rare quality in an age where death has become taboo.
Saints need to stand out. They need to have something to teach us that is challenging, relevant and goes against conventional wisdom. On all counts, Basil Hume scores top marks. So, I have no doubt in supporting moves for his canonisation.
My own reservation remains the attitude of the man himself. In his final sermon as Abbot of Ampleforth before heading south in 1976, he remarked: "The gap between what is thought and expected of me, and what I know myself to be, is considerable and frightening. There are moments in life when a man feels very small and in all my life this is one such moment. It is good to feel small, for I know that whatever I achieve will be God's achievement, not mine." I can almost hear him adding, from up above, "in life as in death".
Peter Stanford's Cardinal Hume and the Changing Face of English Catholicism is published by Continuum