Basil Hume Obit
Basil Hume Obit
Andrew Brown for CT
Basil Hume was the most widely loved and admired Cardinal since John Henry Newman; under his leadership the Roman Catholic Church ascended in prestige and importance as fast as it declined in numbers. The announcement, within a week of his death that Catholic bishops might sit in a reformed House of Lords — if the Vatican gave its permission — symbolised and crowned the long journey to the heart of the British establishment, made entirely on his terms.
He was born into the British ruling classes. His father, Sir William Hume a distinguished Newcastle doctor, was a Protestant Scot, who met his French, Catholic wife during the First World War, where he was twice mentioned in despatches and won a CMG for his medical work. George Hume, born in 1923, was the third child and eldest son in a family of five; one sister later married Lord Hunt, the Cabinet Secretary for most of the Seventies. George Hume was educated at Ampleforth school, and took the name Basil at the age of eighteen, when he entered the novitiate at the monastery there, in 1941. In 1945 he made his full profession as a Monk, and was ordained priest in 1950, after further studies in history at Oxford and theology at Freibourg in Switzerland. The family had been brought up to speak French at home. He was also fluent in German and spoke Italian and Spanish well enough to get by. Throughout his life he spoke English with unaffected precision that made one feel that either he or his listeners were speaking a slightly foreign language: he spoke of "traumata" and once apologised for "the acoustic" of a conference hall.
During the Fifties he worked as a school teacher at Ampleforth, where he rose to be head of the Modern Languages department and a housemaster. He loved Rugby and fishing — he coached the College XV for 12 years — and was devoted to Newcastle United soccer team; so much so that when in 1998 they reached the FA cup final, he preferred to attend the match rather than a demonstration against international debt outside a meeting of G 7 ministers. Stories are told of his formidable French mother driving to Ampleforth in the middle of a Rugger match and shouting "George!" George!" until the housemaster trotted from his charges to her side. In 1963, he was elected abbot of Ampleforth, and remained in that post until 1976, when to the astonishment of most commentators he became Archbishop of Westminster.
On the day of his installation, he led Benedictine monks to the formerly Benedictine Westminster Abbey to sing vespers there for the first time since the Reformation. It was to be a harbinger of his tireless humble peaceful occupation of the high ground of the Establishment. He combined, as a follower of Jesus should, the cunning of a serpent with the gentleness of a dove, the humility of a monk with the wiles of an abbot. At all times he spoke the truth but often with such subtlety that his meaning remained impossible to paraphrase.
His first great public triumph was the visit of Pope John Paul II to England in 1982. No more dramatic healing of the wound sof the reformation could be staged than the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury praying side by side in Canterbury Cathedral. The vast crowds that greeted the Pope were signs as well as wonders. They showed a world in which common Christianity seemed far more important than doctrinal disputes. With faultless tact and skill, the Cardinal appeared both as a quintessentially English figure and as the representative of a truly global Christianity. Thus, in 1987, he was able to announce the participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the structures agreed at Swanwick.
The Eighties were a tricky period for almost all the Roman Catholic churches of the developed world, as the counter-revolution of Pope John Paul II convulsed middle class educated opinion, and led to some terrible institutionalised feuds in North America and Western Europe. In England alone there was none of this; though the parties certainly existed here in embryo, they were held together by a loyalty to their church which the Cardinal skilfully heightened because he was himself so transparently loyal to the ideals of both sides.
The English bishops successfully resisted a Roman attempt to place an Opusdeista in Nottingham and the Cardinal in person rebuked an attempt to import the right-wing factionalism of Mother Angelica from America. He could do these things, which might have got into trouble anyone suspected of being a liberal, because he was known to be completely loyal to the present Pope. At the same time the Left of the Catholic Church here was either co-opted or marginalised. Attempts to import the liberal "We are the Church" from Germany, where it had garnered a million Catholic signature in favour of married clergy and even women priests simply guttered out. The Cardinal was not in the least a democratic figure and there was a hard spine of housemasterly authoritarianism in him: perhaps his only real pastoral failure was in dealing with middle-class catholic parents who objected to his reforms of the school system in the diocese of Westminster. But along with his willingness to command went a humility and a sense that he was himself at all times obedient to his superiors and his God. He asked of others nothing that he did not demand of himself.
He was a man who loved justice and could make other love it too. Though he made few interventions into public life, these were carefully chosen, clearly argued, and always to right what he saw as injustices. The most dramatic, and successful, was his campaigning for the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. The coalition assembled to free these victims of police malpractice embraced law lords and former home secretaries as well as the Cardinal; its final success was complete and had long-lasting effects. His efforts to help refugees, the homeless, and other victims of bourgeois triumphalism were less successful, but they were not failures either. Though for much of the Eighties the Church of England seemed to form the only opposition to Thatcherism, it is at least arguable that the Roman Catholic church, being by its constitution more capable of having policies, is in fact the last socialist organisation in this country. The main thrusts of the Cardinal’s interventions into public life were all on behalf of causes well to the left of anything the current Government feels it can support, whether on homelessness, nuclear disarmament, an education system run by teachers, or refugees and asylum seekers.
In the run-up to the 1997 general election, the Catholic Bishops published, under his auspices, a document on politics entitled The Common Good, which, while it nowhere said in so many words "Vote Labour" could not possibly be understood as an exhortation to vote Conservative, and it certainly urged the importance of voting.
The most prolonged and perhaps the most delicate crisis of his period in office was supplied by the Church of England. Though he believed in the ordination of married men, the Cardinal was profoundly opposed to the ordination of women; even had he been in favour, his belief in order was scandalised by the disorganised and piecemeal way in which the Anglican Communion went about ordaining women. A situation in which Church members in good standing are entitled to their own opinions about the validity of their priests is comprehensible to the Catholic imagination only as farce.
Yet the aftermath of the General Synod decision to ordain women was a tricky period for the Roman Catholics as well. The sudden appearance of an army — well, several thousand priests who claimed to be ready for Union with Rome was not an unmixed blessing, even to a Church which had seen its own vocations precipitously decline. It was largely to reassure the doubters in his own ranks that the Cardinal remarked to John Wilkins, the editor of the Tablet, that this could be "the conversion of England" for which so many had prayed in the bad old days before ecumenism. He was not pleased with Wilkins for publishing the remark, though it was made in a formal interview. It was his only false step.
Unlike many leaders of the Anglo-Catholic party, the Cardinal regarded the Church of England with some affection. He did not believe in it. I don’t think he expected it to last more than another fifty years. But he would do nothing to destroy it. Why should he? It had made him a present of several hundred devout and well-educated priests, each of whom came with a dowry from the Church Commissioners, as well as a number of fashionable converts. Over a period of four or five years, he gradually disappointed the hopes of Forward in Faith that they would be allowed to come over on their own terms. Though he was and is admired greatly by the opponents of women priests for the unfailing pastoral thoughtfulness with which he has found jobs for those who converted as individuals, there would be no corporate solution: no grand march to Rome with banners, under their own leaders.
Some among them thought he would have liked to go further, and was held back by the scruples of more liberal bishops. But nothing could have been more catastrophic than to be seen to have made a grab for the disaffected of the Church of England and to have failed — except, perhaps, to have succeeded, and to have imported, undigested, into the body of the Roman Catholic Church the camp and factionalism of synodical Anglo-Catholicism. He managed with extraordinary skill to keep on good terms with all the Anglican leaders he dealt with over these matters. At the funeral of Princess Diana, when the whole country seemed wracked with a spontaneous outpouring of pagan sentiment, he managed to deliver the only recognisably Christian eulogy that anyone remembered. In his last years he was spoken of as the pre-eminent Christian leader of the country by many people who were neither Roman Catholics nor actuated by any particular spite against Dr Carey. They were simply responding to the natural way in which he exercised authority and to the fact that he never spoke unless he had something thoughtful to say
A chronicle of the outer man’s successes does no justice to the force of his personality and to the evident humility and holiness with which he impressed even hardened journalists. He had a spare, upright frame, and large blue eyes with remarkably expressive weather in them; he had both wit and a sense of humour, and an evident delight in all his fellow creatures. He was a good man and a great church leader. He will be bitterly mourned.
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