A lifetime spent searching for God
GEORGE BASIL, Cardinal Hume, after 23 years as Archbishop of Westminster, died last week more universally mourned, not only by Catholics but by those of other religions and of none, than any of his predecessors since Cardinal Manning.
He had, said one Anglican bishop after his announcement in April that he was dying of cancer, "changed the whole feel of English Catholicism". The gift of the Order of Merit at the Sovereign's hands, shortly afterwards, was a sign of the Queen's particular respect, but it was a mark, too, of the special place he had come to occupy in the nation's affections. After centuries during which there had always been a suspicion that to be Catholic was ,== to be either foreign or in some sense disloyal, Catholicism had become a natural part of English life.
In the words of a former Tory Cabinet Minister, W.F. Deedes, himself an Anglican of the old school, "Cardinal Hume has made the Roman Catholic Church an accepted part of our Establish ment". He was not speaking of any compromise of fundamental Catholic teachings: Hume's influence was powerful, but essentially spiritual — on all those who met him, continued Lord Deedes, "the presence of his humility leaves its mark". He was the quintessential English gentleman of Newman's defmition, "one who never causes pain".
He was particularly sensitive to the pain of others: a friend noted that when he came into a room full of people, he instinctively knew who was suffering the most. Many outside the Catholic Church had come to see him as foremost among our moral leaders. The Queen, who, it was sometimes said, thought of him as "my cardinal" had acknowledged this when she attended vespers in Westminster Cathedral in 1995, and appointed a Roman Catholic honorary chaplain early the following year.
His diffident but powerful personality became firmly impressed on the public consciousness very early in his years at Westminster. He had none of the prelatial presence associated with previous occupants of Westminster and no trace of what the fashion of the times sometimes dismissed as the "triumphalism" of Cardinals Heenan, Godfrey, Griffin and indeed their predecessors stretching back to Manning and Wiseman. It was a quality of warmth and approachability in Hume which marked him out. rather than an identifiable set of p*HaeS. GEORGE HUME took the additional name of Basil on profession, and liked to be called Father Basil even when more eminent titles were available to him. He was blorn on March 2 1923 in Newcastle, the third child and first son of Sir William Errington Hume and Lady Marie Elizabeth Hume. Sir William, a distinguished Newcastle consultant physician, had served in France as an army doctor and had there met the family of a senior French officer, a former military attaché in Madrid, whose daughter was to become his bride and George Hume's mother. She was a motherly and pious lady from a strongly Roman Catholic family, and Sir William, a tolerant Protestant, seemed content to leave the religious formation of their children entirely to her. There was a strong French influence in the household, and domestic conversation was almost invariably in her language. Hume was therefore bilingual from infancy; later he became fluent also in German.
He attended Newcastle Preparatory School and then Gilling Preparatory School from 1931 to 1934, in which year he was enrolled at Ampleforth College. He later dated his ambition to be a monk from about the age of 11 or even earlier, his first inclination in that direction having come from friendship with a Dominican priest with whom he had visited the most depressed parts of northern Britain. So on leaving Ampleforth College, he immediately entered the Abbey there as a novice, and was professed as a monk the following year, in September 1942.
Though as a monk he was exempted from military service, he admitted, in later years, to a romantic vision of himself as a martyr in enemy-occupied Britain. His conviction that German occu pation was inevitable may have come from his mother, whose own country was by then overrun. As it happened, he was able to prepare himself peacefully for the priesthood at Ampleforth, where he took solemn vows in 1945, and later at Oxford and Fribourg. He was a student at St Benet's Hall, Oxford, the Benedictine house there, from 1944 to 1947, securing his master's degree in history. His subsequent four years at Fribourg brought him a licentiate in Theology, and in the course of it — on July 23 1950 — he was ordained priest.
His life from then on was the predictable progress of a gifted young monk at Ampleforth. He was assistant priest in Ampleforth village for a while, taught in the school, was made a housemaster (of St Bede's House), and eventually head of the modem languages department. He was also made responsible for teaching dogmatic theology to the monks in training.
In 1957 his fellow monks elected him to represent them on the general chapter of the English Benedictine congregation, and the general chapter elected him Magister Scholarum of the congregation, a considerable compliment to his intellect, faith and personality.
But he was never really an intellectual. He developed his schoolboy interest in sport while a schoolmaster and a monk, primarily as school rugby coach from 1951 until he assumed the leadership of the Abbey itself. He continued to play what he called "geriatric squash" into his early years at Westminster. But the consuming sporting interest of his life was soccer. When the Duchess of Kent (whom he received into the Catholic Church in 1993) went to him to talk about the faith, she noted on the mantelpiece — wearing his Cardinal's red biretta — a teddy bear in the strip of Newcastle United, of which he was a passionate and lifelong supporter. On one occasion, he provided the television commentary for a Newcastle game: during the course of his remarks he declared with some firmness that he would like the signature tune for Match of the Day to be played at his funeral Mass.
In 1963 he was elected Abbot of Ampleforth. This gave him direct responsibility for the leadership and welfare of around 130 monks, some of whom served in the various parishes in the North of England which Ampleforth traditionally served. His new position also gave him his first real taste of ecumenical relations. His room in the Abbey became a meeting place for clergy of all denominations drawn from the area around about it, and these friendships endured.
HUME took the role of abbot very seriously, immersing himself in the rule of St Benedict and often taking some point from the rule as the subject of his weekly "conference" — an assembly of the monks which it was customary for the abbot to address on some practical or spiritual issue of the moment: a collection of these short talks was later published under the title Searching for God.
It was this priority — this unwavering personal orientation, growing from a lifetime's spiritual formation, towards an unceasing search for God — that was at the heart of his leadership, first of Ampleforth Abbey, then of the English and Welsh Church. Here, in uncertain times, was his lodestone. For, though some were to accuse him of a leadership style which was sometimes too low-key and apparently uncertain, the results were to argue otherwise. The key to understanding his leadership style (and undoubtedly to understanding why he was plucked out of relative obscurity to exercise his particular brand of leadership at Westminster) was his perception of the potentially disastrous disunity of the Catholic Church during the tumultuous years following the Second Vatican Council.
Many religious houses were rent by division: Ampleforth did not escape the pressures of the time. He was later to write about the problem of handling communities which are divided: "How," he asked, "can you be a bishop in such situations without falling between stools or sitting on the fence? I experienced division when I was an abbot. I decided that what unites people has to be very deep. It is the life of prayer. Get that right and much else falls into place." The unity of the English Catholic Church was always to be his first priority as Cardinal, and his way of achieving it, quietly and painstakingly, by listening and empathy, was essentially in the Benedictine tradition.
His election as Cardinal was wholly unexpected, and has become over the years the subject of legend. The favourite in informed circles to succeed Cardinal John Carmel Heenan was Monsignor Derek Worlock, later Archbishop of Liverpool and then Bishop of Portsmouth, who as former secretary to no fewer than three Cardinal Archbishops of Westminster seemed the obvious insider candidate: this expectation highlighted the deliberate break with tradition the daring appointment of Basil Hume represented. Many have given the credit of bringing forward Abbot Hume's name to a well-born clique of Old Amplefordians, led by the Duke of Norfolk. Another version stresses his ecumenical background, and credits his friendship with Dr Donald Coggan, whom he had come to know when Coggan was Archbishop of York. It was, above all, the Apostolic Delegate in London at the time, Archbishop Bruno Heim, whose judgement counted. It was his job to make up the Terna, the list of three names from which Rome makes all episcopal appointments: the Abbot of Ampleforth was top of the list. But how did he get there? Heim's own version is worth recording, since it both highlights and vindicates not only the qualities Rome was looking for but the choice of the candidate Heim thought best exemplified them.
"The new archbishop", wrote Heim, "should be a real leader commanding respect and affection, not someone concerned about his own image. He should have a warm personality and be able to inspire priests. He should also get on well with non-Catholics and play a considerable national role, being willing to delegate, so as not to bum himself out with over work and excessive centralisation.
"Obviously, he should also be a man of Rome, but not just the usual safe, dull appointment, cautiously preserving the status quo. He should really be ecumenically minded and provide a very special leadership, daring and courageous."
Heim's choice was finally confirmed when his secretary, Mgr Giovanni Tonucci, made a spiritual retreat at Ampleforth and returned deeply impressed by the abbot.
BASIL HUME did not welcome his appointment, and accepted it only "out of a monk's obedience". He was, he admitted later, "rather shattered, rather distressed". Ahead of him, it was clear, was a long period at the head of the English Catholic Church. When Basil Hume was consecrated bishop at Westminster Cathedral on March 25, 1976, he was still only 53 years old. He flung himself into his first priority: getting to know clergy and people within his own Archdiocese of Westminster. Bishop John Crowley, then his private secretary, remembered later the personal qualities which so quickly established him, not only among his own people, but on the national stage among non-Catholics, as being a different kind of Catholic prelate. "However fleeting the handshake and brief the conversation, there was the sense of the person being truly met, a real eye to eye contact that was a special quality of his. An impressive memory and a ready sense of humour were other ice breaking gifts which helped considerably."
Above all, he always remembered that his authority came from God and that he was still a Benedictine monk. For his archiepiscopal arms, he took the motto In Nomine Domini (in the name of the Lord); and when he visited Pope Paul VI for the first time, he wore his Benedictine habit. The Pope greeted him with the words "Benedetto colui qui viene nd nome del Signore" (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). It was a first reaction which many were to echo in the years to come: here was someone who wa; a man of God before he was i Prince of the Church.
He was always anxious not to overawe by the grandeur of hi office. He once admitted that if h had a meeting with someone win might be nervous, he sometime left a button on his cassoci undone, or some other item ol clothing slightly askew (it was a device that dated from his days a a housemaster). "That way," he said, "they can rest assured that I am not perfect." His scarlet skull. cap was often not quite straight and away from liturgical celebra tions, he dressed simply, like an other priest. There was, perhaps, a certain element of calculation is his charming — and disarming — awkwardness of manner. His public speeches and statements usually contained some element of diffidence, some small gracious apology for not being cleverer or not having all the answers. Here perhaps was one secret of his appeal to English non Catholics. The English do not like intellectuals, especially religious intellectuals: so the apparent simplicity of Basil Hume' s faith went down well with nonCatholics suspicious of dogma. When he claimed to havea"third division brain", he was not only disarming potential hostility to him personally, but also to a religion often seen by outsiders as unnecessarily theologicall3 convoluted.
In a period of doctrinal turbulence, his anti-dogmatic nanner persuaded Catholic liberal s that he was at heart one of then; and many conservatives assuned he was a theological liberal, too. But he was seen in Rome as a safe pair of hands: and whatever his personal sympathy for individuals, he always defended the authority of Rome in the end, though he sometimes gave the impresion on particular issues that he might have handled matters differently himself.
An interesting example ocurred. in 1993, when many Catholic homosexuals reacted with gratitude to a personal statement,issued after a restatement by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger of the tradtional Vatican line against homosexual acts. The Cardinal affirmd the dignity of homosexuals, advised them "not to develop a seise of guilt", and firmly condemned discrimination against then. But there was never any questpin of Hume's defying Catholic texhing on the matter (though someradi tionalists assumed that tha was what he was doing) and Mein in 1999 Quest, a support group for Catholic gays and lesbians, reused to confirm their loyalty to Cah.olic teaching on sexual ethics, heindi cated that their name shottcl be removed from the annual Caht9lic Directory.
But he was always aware ef the apparent hardness of ice me Catholic teaching, and anxios to find ways of conveying reline:pus truth in simple and attractive vays.
He tended to stress the quesicons people asked rather than the dear Continued on page 6