Page 13, 17th August 2007

17th August 2007
Page 13
Page 13, 17th August 2007 — Behind the crimson robes and red hats

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Locations: York, Rome


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Behind the crimson robes and red hats

Francis Phillips takes us on a guided tour through the history of English cardinals in this lavishly illustrated and informative new book

The English Cardinals by Fr Nicholas Schofield and Fr Gerard Skinner, Family Publications £19.50 There is something about the word "cardinal" and the phrase "prince of the Church", with all their pomp and circumstance suggestiveness, that raises the hackles of my Evangelical brother. Yet the men in this book, some saintly, some scholarly, others shrewd and sensible administrators, have all played their part in the Christian heritage of this country. The authors, both priests in the Westminster diocese, relate a fascinating story in these brief essays which are lavishly illustrated, full of historical detail and brought alive by many anecdotes.

Reforms of the Church in the Ilth century formalised the role played by cardinals. In 1245 Pope Innocent IV prescribed the distinctive red hat, with its 15 tassels on each side, which hangs in faded splendour above the tombs of some of its wearers.

These men fall into three groups: powerful medieval and Renaissance prelates; the cardinals of penal times; and those chosen after the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1850.

Notable among the first group is Nicholas Breakspear, who became the only English pope as Adrian IV in 1154. Stephen Langton (1150-1228) was memorably quoted by Pope John Paul LI on his visit to England in 1982. Thomas Bourchier (1411-1486) receives a rather dry school report: he "does not seem to have da771ed anyone with particular academic gifts". Cardinal John Morton (1420-1500) is of interest partly because the young Thomas More served as a page under him at Lambeth Palace; according to Roper's biography the elderly cardinal told those dining with him that "this child here waiting at table ... will prove a marvellous man".

Thomas Wolsey (1470-1530), played so powerfully by Orson Welles in the film A Man for All Seasons, received his red hat in 1515; in the procession the cross was borne by a humbler and holier man, the future martyr John Fisher. Yet Wolsey, sinner rather than saint, had "a genuine concern for the well-being of the Church".

The crimson robes worn by cardinals, which look so brilliant in portraiture are, the authors remind us, to demonstrate that their wearers are prepared to shed their blood for Christ.

Among the English cardinals only St John Fisher was granted this privilege; Holbein's famous sketch, reproduced here, captures the inner suffering and asceticism of this man, executed by Henry VIII before he could receive his red hat.

Having read The Time Before You Die by Lucy Beckett, a highly original historical novel set at the time of the Reformation, I have subsequently been intrigued by Cardinal Reginald Pole. Exiled from England and living in Rome he was considered papabile; had he, a known supporter of Church reform, been elected pope at the conclave of 1549, the Reformation might have taken a less brutally divisive form.

He lost by one vote, returned to England in the reign of Queen Mary and died on the same day as his sovereign.

During the next 300 years Cardinal Allen (1532-94) was notable in founding the English College at Douai for the dangerous work of the priests of the English mission.

Cardinal York, brother of Bonnie Prince Charlie, never visited England. He lived in style outside Rome at Frascati where, as a student, I saw his memorial in the cathedral.

Nicholas Wiseman, referred to by his Irish servant as "His immense" (he enjoyed his food) became Archbishop of Westminster — and thus a cardinal — in 1850, the year of the hierarchy's return. He is the author of the hymn "Full in the panting heart of Rome" which our small (but ardently ultramontane) parish sings every June 29 as the papal flag flies from its flagpole outside our church hall.

Cardinal Manning, unluckily singled out by the waspish Lytton Stratchey as one of his eminent Victorians, took only 14 years to travel from being an Anglican archdeacon to becoming a Catholic archbishop. His difficulties with John Henry Newman, that rare example of an individual being singled out for a cardinal's hat because of extraordinary services to the Church, are briefly alluded to here.

Newman's "biglietto" speech on receiving his red hat is reprinted in full; a justly celebrated attack on the notion "that one creed is as good as another", it sent shivers down my spine as I read its prophetic words. The same day I had bumped into an elderly lady of my acquaintance who informed me that as we are all going to heaven she could see no point in different churches. Highly indignant that a friend of hers had been debarred from Communion because she was not baptised she became indignant with me for mildly disagreeing with her.

Cardinal Griffm (1899-1956), according to Adrian Hastings "the least important Archbishop of Westminster of the century", was treated with great respect by my family at least, whom he met holidaying in County Kerry in the early 1950s; indeed, my younger sister was so overcome that she addressed him as "Your Majesty".

Cardinal Godfrey (1889-1963) was a well-loved rector of the English College in Rome. His biretta was found in a waste paper basket and given a new lease of life by a parish priest I knew who was a seminarian there after the last war.

Cardinal Basil Hume, former Abbot of Ampleforth, steered a welcoming course to convert Anglican clergy; he was followed by our present Archbishop, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, hailing from a stalwart Catholic family in which three brothers became priests.

The authors have produced an excellent reference book, replete with each cardinal's colourful coat of arms and motto. Cor Ad Cor Loquitor is my favourite.

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