e-mail us


British Catholic leader Hume knew how to stand his ground

NCR Staff

Britain’s Cardinal George Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster, who died of cancer in London on June 17, was asked in the early 1980s to conduct the annual midsummer retreat for U.S. bishops.

Hume, a Benedictine monk, agreed, and by all accounts he was a gentle, sympathetic and yet challenging speaker. At the end of the gathering, he made that challenge quite clear. “It was 1982, I think,” Hume said during a taped conversation with NCR last year as part of a future project, “and I remember the last thing I said to the American bishops was, ‘I’m leaving now and going to get on an aeroplane, so I can say what I want. I think you should stop looking over your shoulders at Rome.’ ”

With that, he was gone.

The episode provides a glimpse at the private candor of Hume, a widely respected church leader, and his views on the international church.

Hume, 76, had led his diocese and the British Catholic community for 23 years. His funeral was scheduled for June 25. The former abbot spent 26 years at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, in northeast England before his assignment to Westminster.

Hume died of abdominal cancer only two months after it was diagnosed in April.

In death, the tributes to Hume in England and elsewhere were extensive and deserved.

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, head of the Anglican communion, said of Hume: “For many ordinary people -- Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and nonbelievers -- it was his personal qualities, especially his humility and compassion, that gave him a special place in their hearts.” Pope John Paul II praised his “unflinching and sensitive ecumenical commitment, and his firm leadership in helping people of all beliefs to face the challenges of the last part of this difficult century.”

Hume was, said the pope, “a shepherd of great spiritual and moral character.”

Hume was deeply involved with work for the homeless and was partly instrumental in the final freeing of Irish people wrongly convicted and jailed in Britain for terrorism.

The American Catholic historian John Jay Hughes said of the late cardinal, “He was one of the handful of great people in the church of our day.”

Britain’s newspapers agreed and devoted dozens of pages to his life and actions.

Perhaps the most pleasing public tribute occurred just days before Hume’s death. On June 2 he left his sickbed to go to Buckingham Palace where Queen Elizabeth II conferred on him the Order of Merit. This honor is a “personal gift of the queen” to individuals of “exceptional distinction.” Limited to only 26 living people, this was the first time it was given to a Catholic.

To the end, Hume was what he was at the beginning, a monk and a schoolmaster. Retiring in most things, he was capable of firmness and had a strong sense of the fitting order of things -- as he revealed during the conversation with NCR at Archbishop’s House, London in February 1998.

The topics touched on included such sensitive issues as episcopal dissatisfaction with how bishops are treated by the Roman curia’s bureaucrats, on meetings with the pope and on Vatican pronouncements on homosexuality.

That evening Hume, relaxed in an old blue woolen pullover and clerical collar, sat back in an armchair, the conversation with this former college rugby coach and keen squash player alternately intense and amusing.

He said of himself, “I’m not certain my testimony is of much value. I’m not a political animal, I don’t think. I don’t go to Rome all that often. I’m not the sort of person who wants to be in the thick of things.”

Nonetheless, the mild-mannered cardinal, in his own words, “blew my top” over some communications received from Rome. In one instance, he recalled, “I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to give myself airs, but I have been a bishop for over 20 years, and a cardinal for the same amount of time, but one doesn’t, I think, receive a letter like that.’ ”

“So, I blew my top and I wrote to Cardinal [Angelo] Sodano [secretary of state], and I said I want to come and see you. So I went to see him, and I said, ‘I don’t mind people writing and saying you’ve got this wrong, but there is a way of doing it.’

“I knew darn well,” Hume continued, that the letters that offended “hadn’t been written by the top chaps.” He took up the matter again when he went on his ad limina (every five years) visit to Rome. “With some of the other bishops I was in a certain congregation, and the prefect [congregation head] was there.”

Hume said he spoke of the letter he’d received, and continued to the prefect, “ ‘I think it is extremely important that the communications we receive take into account our pastoral responsibilities and experience, too.’ “The man sitting next to the prefect was quite low down in the hierarchy and the congregation,” Hume recounted, “and I darn well knew who had written it because he blushed to the top of his head. That gave me my answer.”

One could imagine generations of schoolboys blushing under Hume’s occasional stern gaze or admonishing finger during his teaching years, 1950 to 1976.

Still speaking of the curia, he said, “and I think that a lot of that happens -- drafts are prepared by the lower chaps and then they’re signed but not read. And that gets bishops wild,” said Hume.

Hume was too restrained to be wild.

He was born on March 2, 1923, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in northeast England, into an affluent family.

He attended the Benedictine-run Ampleforth College from the age of 13 and, with the exception of studies at Oxford University and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, practically never left -- until called to Westminster in 1976. He was ordained in 1951.

When his appointment was announced, Hume had been Ampleforth’s abbot for a dozen years, spiritual leader to the more than 150 monks there and headmaster of its upper-crust boys’ school.

From his London base, Hume became a quiet, firm voice of reason to be reckoned with at the highest levels of British society and, occasionally, politics.

Hume was early involved in the issue of ordaining some former married Anglican clergymen as Roman Catholic priests. “I had a lot to do with that and had to go to CDF [the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith]. I was amazed at how open they were, including [CDF Prefect Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger.

“I remember going to the pope at one point and saying, ‘We’re going to ordain these men but of course we’re not challenging celibacy.’

“And the pope replied, ‘Be generous. Be generous. Be generous.’ ”

It amused Hume to recount the incident, and he repeated the “Be generous” refrain again.

The cardinal continued, “Just because you’ve received Anglicans it doesn’t mean you’ve got to give in on celibacy. I’ve got my own views on that,” he said. But he would not be drawn out on what those views were.

Hume was simultaneously surprised by John Paul’s flexibilitá on some things and yet “perplexed” by him.

In 1980, after a two-year consultation, British Catholics held a National Pastoral Congress. Hume took the report of the Congress to Castelgondolfo, the pope’s summer residence. Hume said the pope sat on one side of the desk, he on the other. The cardinal handed the pope the report and asked would he mind reading just two pages. They concerned the deliberations on the church’s teaching on the ban on artificial contraception in marriage.

“Just those two pages,” asked Hume. The cardinal explained to NCR that he wanted to “take something back” to those who had labored so diligently in making the Congress a success. John Paul took the report, paid no attention to Hume’s request or to the markers indicating the two pages, set the plan to one side and changed the subject.

During the conversation with NCR, the cardinal commented a little further on the U.S. church.

“It came across to me very strongly that there was this fearful side to [the U.S. bishops]. That, I think, frustrates some of their theologians,” he said. “You see, we’re different over here. We have a minority church. We’re not important worldwide. We can get on with our own jobs. It’s a different situation.”

Hume thought for a moment, then continued, “And of course, they [Rome] had it in for Jadot [Archbishop Jean Jadot, apostolic delegate in the United States, 1973-80]. And he was a marvelous man. And they had it in for the appointments he was responsible for.” (Jadot was generally recognized for recommending as bishops U.S. priests with strong pastoral experience and commitment.)

Hume also said he could not understand it when two U.S. cardinals -- Bernard Law of Boston and James Hickey of Washington -- disagreed so publicly with the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin when that prelate proposed his Common Ground Initiative.

The initiative proposed regular gatherings of Catholics from across the conservative-liberal spectrum who would meet regularly to find common ground.

“I was a good friend of Joe’s,” said Hume. “We were on various committees together, and I had stayed with him in Chicago. I couldn’t understand that.”

On other topics, Hume said, “I don’t know how strongly the pope feels about priests who have left, but the old Roman attitude toward that is quite hard. And again, I’m sure it’s not the pope, but on the whole homosexual thing, the documents that have come out of Rome really are badly worded. Offensive.”

Hume said he subsequently produced a document on homosexuality “to try, really, to sort of soften the blows a bit. It was very interesting because then I got a communication from Rome -- it had no name on it, had no signature on it -- and it was a sort of critique of what I’d written.”

The cardinal said that when the nuncio to Britain handed the communication to him, the nuncio said, “Oh, you may be interested in this. When you need to revise it [Hume’s document on homosexuality], you may take account of what it says.”

Hume said, “So I looked at the first line. It stated, ‘There is nothing in this document that is against church’s teaching.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much. That is all I want,’ ” and handed the communication back to the nuncio. Hume gave his accounts with humor, the same humor that went into picking an item of his funeral music.

A lifelong supporter of Newcastle United, his hometown soccer team, Hume liked to catch up with the team’s games on television’s “Match of the Day” program.

He said he wanted the “Match of the Day” theme music played at his funeral.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999