Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999), Archbishop of Westminster, R.I.P.

Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999), Archbishop of Westminster, R.I.P.

Christopher Quinn

On the morning following Cardinal Basil Hume's death on June 17th, the London Times concluded its obituary with a remarkable accolade: "Few churchmen in this century, inside or outside the Catholic Church have died more deeply loved."

In doing so it acclaimed the Cardinal's death as a national event. So too did the fact that the British and Irish Prime Ministers attended his funeral, and that the Queen sent the (Catholic) Duchess of Kent as her representative. BBC1 even televised the two hour event, live and uninterrupted.

The Times was correct. Cardinal Hume was much loved, and by all manner of people. The homeless owed him much, as did the victims of injustice; the Guildford four in particular. Anglican clergymen seeking full communion found in him a wise and welcoming father: at the height of their disaffection he held weekly afternoons at Archbishop's House open to any Anglican clergymen who wished to attend. Ordinary Catholics whom he met were often astounded when a conversation ended with the invitation to "come to tea" and talk further.

Spiritual leader

But Cardinal Hume was loved for more than his warmth and compassion. He had become the nation's spiritual leader; not intentionally, but by virtue of his personal holiness, his Benedictine spirituality, and by way of holding office for over twenty-three years. Secular post-modern Britain, in which abortion and divorce are but casual matters, listened to Basil Hume. A number of converts in recent years, some very well known, owe much to his public witness.

"What about his diocese: was he a good bishop?" some will ask. In so far as such terms have meaning at all, he was predominantly liberal. He was criticised bitterly for this at times, most recently by the editor of Christian Order. Undoubtedly things could be have been better in the Archdiocese of Westminster: the continually declining rates of practice suggest that at least. Some abuses remain: general absolution still occurs. Priests causing astonishment and scandal with their heterodox views or irregular liturgical behaviour were left to carry on alienating the faithful.

Preaching at the funeral, Bishop John Crowley of Middlesborough, a former personal secretary, eulogised that Hume and the late Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool "during the long years of their partnership guided our Church away from the extremes of right and left." Enough said.

However, things could have been worse. Cardinal Hume had a sense of tradition and a sense of decency, not usually found in North American liberals. The martyrs died here for the faith not all that long ago and English Catholics, however liberal, hold that dear. In ecumenical matters he was positive and courteous but quite prepared to acknowledge real differences. He insisted that would-be converts from Anglicanism accept the whole of Catholic teaching and not à la carte.

Hume maintained and supported what is arguably the best Catholic Cathedral Choir in the world and did not shrink from the insignia or ceremonial of his office. He allowed the Traditional Mass and visited the Brompton Oratory, celebrating Mass according to their customs. Against the complaints of many other bishops, he appeared in public in London with Mother Angelica.

And in the last years of his reign he has been complaining time and time again about the lack of due reverence to the Blessed Sacrament. In one pastoral letter he directed parishes to restore Exposition and Benediction. In a paper prepared during his illness and read posthumously, he lamented: "Communion in the hand, moving the Blessed Sacrament from the High Altar, failure to genuflect, have in my experience weakened the respect and devotion due to so great a Sacrament."

Allen Hall, his - at times notoriously liberal - seminary has a new rector, appointed by Cardinal Hume who, amongst other things, has re- ordered the chapel so that it looks like a chapel, and speaks openly and often of the importance of the ministerial priesthood.


Earlier in the year it became known that he had banned Quest, a dissenting homosexual group, from inclusion in the Catholic Directory. They had refused to comply with his requirement of an unequivocal declaration of their acceptance of Catholic teaching. In this exchange his orthodoxy shone.

Whatever the judgement of historians upon the reign of Cardinal Hume, his death was utterly exemplary. Only in April did he feel ill. Within days his doctors informed him that he was suffering from inoperable cancer "not in its early stages." He wrote immediately to his priests of two wonderful graces this news had brought him: "calm and peace," and "time to prepare for a new future." Two months later, fortified by the Sacraments and somewhat sooner than even he had expected, he died, having shown the Church and the nation how to die a Christian death. He lies buried in the chapel of Saints Gregory and Augustine in Westminster Cathedral clothed in his habit and pallium.

Christopher Quinn is a freelance European journalist.

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