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Obituary: Cardinal Basil Hume

1999 June 18
by Paul Vallely



Friday 18 June 1999


IT WAS on the plane back from Rome in 1980 that George Basil Hume realised that everything had to change. He was returning from a meeting of the synod which had brought Roman Catholic bishops from all over the world to discuss “Marriage and the Family” – a subject which English Catholics, clergy and laity, had considered at length earlier that year at their National Pastoral Congress.

But, when the English cardinal, at a private meeting with the Pope, presented the two-page summary of its conclusions, John Paul II brushed them aside without reading them. In the days which followed, the Vatican officials manipulated the synodical proceedings to ensure that none of the suggestions brought from the dioceses were reflected in the concluding documents. Cardinal Hume was shocked. They acted as though the bishops weren’t even there, he complained to his fellow bishop Derek Worlock on the plane home. Hume then realised he had to play a very different game. Being Archbishop of Westminster would mean cultivating the skills of a politician.

In the years that followed he did just that, developing a dextrous strategy designed to keep Rome from plunging his church into the kind of polarisation between progressives and conservatives which characterises Catholicism in many other parts of the world. He achieved it. And yet he did so without ever sacrificing the personal sense of profound spirituality which marked him out to everyone who met him as a man of prayer.

This was something so real that it inspired throughout the land – even in an age of cynicism and at a time when the number of Catholics attending Mass was falling dramatically – a respect for the moral authority which made this Benedictine monk, who outlasted five prime ministers and three Archbishops of Canterbury, the pre-eminent Christian leader of his day. He was, it was said, someone who managed to talk to the English about God without making them feel that they would rather be somewhere else – and who, at last, made the British establishment see that Catholicism, instead of being regarded as an exotic import of questionable loyalty, could be at the centre of what it means to be a Christian in this country today. Basil Hume put the bright headship to that.

He was born George Hume in Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1923. His father, Sir William Hume, was Professor of Medicine at Durham University; his mother, Elizabeth Tisseyre, was from a military family. There was an irony in the image Hume was to gain as a quintessence of Englishness, for his father was a Scottish Protestant and his mother a French Catholic. But his education was archetypically upper-middle-class English – prep school in his native Newcastle and then at Gilling East, and then at Ampleforth College, the public school in North Yorkshire run by Benedictine monks.

There he decided to become a monk and took his first vows – choosing Basil as his monastic name – before going on to Oxford to read History and, when he trained for the priesthood, opted for Fribourg, rather than Rome, for his theological studies (which is perhaps why his ecclesiology turned out orthodox rather than ultramontane).

He then returned to life at Ampleforth as Fr Basil, teacher and housemaster, where – when his imperious French mother arrived in her chauffeur-driven car, wound down the window and shouted “Georges!” – the man who had recently been elected Magister Scholarum of the English Benedictine Congregation would jump up from his chair, run his hands over his hair, rub his toe- caps on the back of his trousers and run to greet his mother just like one of his fifth-formers.

When, in 1963, his community bypassed two monastic generations and elected him abbot, at the age of just 40, it was that most English of qualities, the genius for compromise, which they perhaps perceived in him, along with his evident prayerfulness. With a community of 150 monks, a school and 20 parishes to supervise, the young abbot needed to be a master of reconciling clashing priorities. More than that, the Second Vatican Council had just begun, and with it a revolution which was to rock the Church, creating pressures which were to cause many religious communities to fall apart.


Out went Latin. In came the vernacular, communion under both kinds, the practice of concelebration, a new lectionary and breviary – and a eucharistic rite which seemed ominously similar to its Anglican equivalent. The task of orchestrating all this in a community with an inbuilt resistance to change was formidable. Some of Ampleforth’s most respected monks were out of sympathy with the whole thrust of “Vatican II”: one man’s renewal, said one monk, was another man’s betrayal. Yet over the next 12 years Dom Basil handled it with sensitivity and flexibility, creating loopholes for those who needed exceptions.

“My head is progressive but my heart is conservative,” he told the monks, taking care never to ally himself too much with one set of opinions. He pursued the same technique as Archbishop, combining a conservative temperament with an intellectual openness and a vivid sense of moral and social justice.

His appointment to Westminster was entirely unexpected, not least to Hume himself. He might, perhaps, have realised that he was a strong candidate to become world-wide superior of the Benedictine order when the job of Abbot Primate fell vacant in 1977. But the job of leader of the Catholics of England and Wales, as it was to become known in his time, he had not presumed even to consider. Indeed he was flattered even to be consulted by the papal nuncio about who might succeed to the post after the death of Cardinal John Heenan. The front-runner was considered to be Derek Worlock, recently appointed Archbishop of Liverpool, and the Church’s leading strategist and intellectual (who turned out to have enemies in Rome).

Hume took the telephone call of appointment in the middle of dinner with his fellow monks. He was not happy. “I must confess I didn’t enjoy the rest of the meal,” he said afterwards. Indeed he was only reconciled to the commission after an interview with Pope Paul VI, into which he went glum-faced and emerged happy and with no doubts about himself or the job, one contemporary recalls.

From the moment of his installation in 1976 it was clear that Basil Hume was in a different mould to his predecessors. Heenan, like those before him, had been steely and aloof – a “prince of the church” in the phrase of the time. Like the other seven Archbishops of Westminster since the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 he trod a careful line between London and Rome – but one which never disputed the primacy of the Vatican. “Am I Queen of England or am I not?” said Queen Victoria when faced with the triumphalism of the first of those figures, Cardinal Wiseman, whose old-fashioned carriage with its cardinal-pink gorgeous trappings was satirised by the poet Browning as a “lobster side-salad”. In his inaugural address Archbishop Hume set out a very different philosophy, and one which was to characterise his approach over the next 23 years. A bishop, he said, quoting Augustine, was a man who knew the weakness, fears and anxieties of all people; who, as well as sensing the presence of God, experienced the darkness of his apparent absence; whose job was not to stifle but to release, not to impose but to draw out, not to dominate but to animate.

Four years later in Rome he realised this was not the agenda of everyone in the hierarchy. At the 1980 Synod of Bishops, just before that defining moment on the plane home, Hume had issued a masterly warning which made his peers sit up. There was a view of the Church, he said, as a fortress with soldiers whose duty was unquestioning obedience, in which so much noise was made that they could not hear those outside. But there was also a vision of the Church as a pilgrim, searching for the road in a land where the signposts pointing the way had become weather-beaten and needed new paint and yet were being renovated with the wrong paint. This was Hume at his masterly best: elliptical, imaginative and penetratively critical without being overtly so.

But the key men in the Curia felt that the pace of change after the Second Vatican Council had been too intense; national churches were out of step with the centre; they wanted the brakes applied. The Vatican’s manipulation of the outcome of the synod made clear to him what kind of vision many in Rome had.

Loyalty and obedience were high virtues to Hume. He never did anything to embarrass the Pope – even in private his criticism was always levelled at Vatican officials, the Curia, rather than the pontiff himself. But from this point on he became more wary of Rome and carefully defensive of his English flock. Hume quietly and assiduously fought off Vatican excesses over the years. His greatest successes lay in the field of episcopal appointments in which he resisted Rome’s general policy to replace the older generation of bishops formed by the Second Vatican Council with younger more conservative figures. Such moves have riven national churches from Holland and Austria to the United States and Brazil. In England, by contrast, new bishops have been in the mould of Hume and Worlock, including the man appointed to the diocese of Northampton, on which in 1989 Hume is said to have successfully subverted a Vatican attempt to impose a member of the reactionary Catholic secret society Opus Dei.

Over the years of Rome’s crackdown on dissent and even debate, whenever Curia officials raised concerns about an English theologian Hume would phone the Vatican’s guardian of doctrine, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and insist that the matter would be dealt with domestically. Yet Hume sensed that if the English church was to be allowed to keep the progress that had already been made then it must not clamour for further implementation of the Vatican II vision. His critics said that he was too cautious, but few can have been aware of the tightrope he was walking to enable the English Catholics to survive this period of Vatican revisionism without having to undergo the painful reversals and splits experienced elsewhere.

Basil Hume’s ability to endure pressure from all sides grew from a determination, as he put it, that “pastors need to start where people are and not where we think they should be”. This meant holding clear principles but displaying “endless compassion” to individuals – an approach he knew would bring criticism from those who “tend to want bishops to condemn”.One of the areas which caused him most pain was that of homosexuality. There were those in Rome who felt he was soft on the issue – a leaflet attacking him was once put anonymously on every chair in a closed Vatican session. Hume was explicitly critical of some Vatican formulations on the subject which he felt betrayed a homophobic attitude; he insisted on the authenticity of homosexual friendships. And yet he also had to undergo public demonstrations in church from gay campaigners who accused him of the opposite – demonstrations which he found frightening and distressing.

It is popularly said in Catholic circles that a bishop looks one of three ways – down to see how his priests are getting on, sideways to see what other bishops are doing, or upwards to Rome. Basil Hume looked none of these three. To a greater extent than those of almost all his episcopal peers, his contemporaries said, Hume’s eyes were on God. He never left behind the monastic formation of his early years, continuing to rise early to be at his prayers soon after 6am: the best part of the day was for God, he said, for he had entered a monastery not out of contempt for the world but to give undivided attention to God. Maintaining that rhythm without the support of a community took discipline, but it also brought him the freedom which comes with detachment from the things of the world.

His primary image of himself was one of a man standing before God to whom he was accountable rather than to any individual, group or institution. It put him out of joint with the times. He resisted models of the Church driven by too great an emphasis on democracy, bringing criticism from Catholic activists over his abolition of the diocesan pastoral council. He resisted, too, the utilitarian arguments which dominates thinking in wider society. On education he spoke out against the current vision which he saw as too market-driven and too narrowly focused in its curriculum. On matters of public ethics he constantly reiterated that there is such a thing as objective truth; morals are not just a matter of opinion. On questions of bio-ethics – abortion, euthanasia, cloning, genetic engineering and frozen embryos – he persistently pointed out that our society wrongly values people according to what they have, do or produce when we should value individuals for what they are.

His motto was that everyone he met was superior to him in some way. It gave him the gift of making everyone to whom he spoke feel that they were the most important person in the world for that moment.

This equipped him to play without artifice with young children; he even drew a book of spiritual reflections, Basil in Blunderland (1997), from one game of hide-and-seek. It enabled him to speak with ease to the terminally ill; he once encountered a woman on her deathbed who was consumed with the feeling that she was now of no use to anyone, and instead of offering to pray for her he asked her to pray for him, since “the prayers of the dying are especially precious to God, because they will soon be in His presence”.

But it also allowed him to speak to Cabinet ministers and members of the Royal Family without being at all in awe of them. He routinely invited senior politicians to his home at Archbishop’s House to lobby them privately, with significant degrees of success, on issues as varied as homelessness, refugees and asylum seekers, youth benefit cuts, education, to the sale of British arms to repressive regimes. He moved with an easy grace among the royals, receiving the Duchess of Kent into the Roman Catholic Church in 1994, and welcoming the Queen in the first visit by a monarch to Westminster Cathedral on the occasion of its centenary in 1995.

This royal favour pleased him greatly. The Queen’s attendance at Latin Vespers signalled to him a new acceptance of the Catholic Church in the life of the nation and rewarded Hume’s deliberate aim to emphasise the Englishness of his church: “What do you think I have been working for all these years?” he was heard to mutter when someone expressed surprise at the monarch’s decision to attend. The next year she appointed an honorary Catholic chaplain. And only two weeks ago she bestowed upon the dying Cardinal the most prestigious honour in her personal gift, the Order of Merit.

With Basil Hume the church which was once dismissed in England as “the Italian mission to the Irish” finally emerged from its Catholic ghetto. Of course the process was already under way, thanks to the funding of Catholic schools under the 1944 Education Act which produced a confident educated new generation which felt English and Catholic in equal part. But Hume, his fellow bishops acknowledged, was more sensitive than they to the reservations and prejudice still to be found in certain circles.

Basil Hume’s background played a significant role in countering that. One bishop tells how the cardinal would sit and watch the television news as a succession of ambassadors, politicians and senior army officers appeared on the screen and say of each one: “He was at Ampleforth; I taught him.”

Encounters with individuals were what most energised him. He never forgot the piercing eyes of a boy he met during the famine in Ethiopia who held out his hand to the prelate and said: “I am hungry.” Hume became a dedicated supporter of the Catholic development agency, Cafod, and remained active on its behalf until his death. “You cannot look into the eyes of a starving child and remain the same,” he said.

Something similar happened when he met Giuseppe Conlon on a prison visit in 1978 and he was seized with the feeling that the man might be innocent. From that sprang his 13-year campaign against miscarriages of justice which was a decisive influence in the freeing of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven. Hume was relentless. “He’ll never give up, you know,” a former Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, warned the incumbent, Douglas Hurd, over a private dinner. When the releases came they shook the criminal justice system to the core and led, via a Royal Commission, to the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, something he regarded as his most significant achievement in the area of public and social order.

Hume did not make public utterance on every topic of the day, for fear of debasing the coinage of his own utterance. But in the main it was because he believed that practical work behind the scenes was more effective – whether in pressurising governments or in pulling on his overcoat to visit the homeless on the streets or in the night shelter he set up near the cathedral, sometimes taking with him Diana, Princess of Wales, who accompanied him on a number of discreet visits.

His background diligence laid the ground for his public successes. In 1992 he faced what was perhaps the toughest test of his public leadership when thousands of Anglicans turned to Rome after the Church of England voted to ordain women. His skill in preserving good relations with Anglican leaders while accepting married Anglican clergymen into the Catholic priesthood owed much to a cultivation of ecumenical relations which went back to the very night of his installation as Archbishop in 1976. Then he led a group of his black-robed monks down the road from his cathedral to Westminster Abbey, where they filed into the stalls to sing Vespers for the first time since the abbey ceased to be a Benedictine monastery at the Reformation 400 years before.

Behind this new determination to heal the division was the affront Hume had experienced the very first time that he attended a service in a non- Catholic church. It was for his father’s funeral, when church rules prevented him even from joining in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Within a month of moving to Westminster he became president of English Association of Inter-church Families and pursued a policy of ecumenism whose highlight was the visit of the Pope to Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 but whose impact upon ordinary Christians in the parishes has been far-reaching.

Even so the ordination of women created a very delicate ecumenical moment. Things could have gone badly wrong. Hume dropped a rare clanger with a remark in The Tablet that this could mean “the conversion of England” but otherwise handled the issue with skill. He kept open good lines of communication with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London and at the same time gave a tactful welcome to the converts. In each case the final decision to permit an ordination rested with Rome so Hume went to the Pope and asked for authority to be devolved to him. He got not only that but also agreement to a form of wording in the ordination which acknowledged the fruitfulness of the candidates’ previous ministry.

But Basil Hume’s successes went far further than the Church, whether his own denomination or others. On television and radio, as in person, he exuded a warmth, an intellectual honesty, a sureness of touch and, above all, an integrity which endeared him to non-churchgoers. In the last five years of his life, as if he perceived that religions have become too preoccupied with their internal affairs to have a useful relationship with modern culture, his public language became more secular. His latter statements – on the age of consent, on bio-ethical issues, on the common good – were increasingly cast in terms of what it means to be human where earlier he might have spoken of a call to know God. It was a significant shift.

There were those who responded to it by offering him a place in the House of Lords. He said no. It was not an office he sought, even as he went out of his way to try not to be pope. There were times, when Pope John Paul II looked particularly ill, when a Hume papacy seemed a possibility. He was well-thought of by his fellow cardinals. He had gained a significant profile in eight years as president of the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences. Even in Rome he was numbered among those considered papabile.

Hume’s response was studiously to refuse to learn Italian. In contrast to those cardinals who were ready to go to Rome at the drop of a biretta, he would flee the place when his presence was not essential, once leaving on the eve of a consistory where more ambitious mortals would have stayed to network with other cardinals. He could not live in the Holy See, he moaned: he would miss marmalade and Match of the Day – he was a lifelong Newcastle United fan.

Instead he remained a monk as Paul VI exhorted him to do when he made him Archbishop and then Cardinal in 1976. Half of him yearned for the cloister, regularly admonishing himself for “falling into the danger of feeling that, unless I am preoccupied with activity then I cannot be doing my job properly”. It is a danger for all of us in the modern world, he added. “The most important thing about monks is that they do not do anything in particular. They are just there. People should not worry about what they should do, just what they should be.”

He never fulfilled his ambition to retire to a north of England parish with some decent trout fishing or to return to the monastery at Ampleforth, the place whose educational philosophy he once quipped was to “prepare our boys for death”. Instead he prepared for his own with a spirit full of lightness and totally lacking in self-pity. “I have received two wonderful graces,” he wrote to his priests to tell them of his terminal cancer. “First, I have been given time to prepare for a new future. Secondly, I find myself – uncharacteristically – calm and at peace.”

Basil Hume, as Abbot of Ampleforth, liked to repeat to his monks the words of one of his predecessors: “Remember, Fathers, that when you die, somebody will be relieved.” Today you would have to look far to find such a person.


George Hume, priest: born Newcastle upon Tyne 2 March 1923; entered the Benedictine Order 1941, taking the name Basil; ordained priest 1950; Senior Modern Language Master, Ampleforth College 1952-63, Housemaster 1955-63, Professor of Dogmatic Theology 1955-63, Abbot 1963-76; Magister Scholarum, English Benedictine Congregation 1957-63; Archbishop of Westminster 1976-99; Cardinal 1976; President, Council of European Bishops’ Conferences 1978-87; President, Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales 1979-99; OM 1999; died London 17 June 1999.


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