Sunday, 22 June 2008

Looking Back at Cardinal Basil Hume.

I am currently reading Anthony Howard's biography of Cardinal Basil Hume, called The Monk Cardinal, which was published in 2005 and written with access to the Cardinal's private papers. (I bought the book at the Cats Protection League Garden Fete, so Oliver is pleased. ) Whatever one's views on the Cardinal's stewardship of the Catholic Church in this country, I think nobody can seriously doubt that he was a truly holy man. He seemed to shine with a radiance.

However, reading this book now, years after the events it describes, it becomes obvious that some of his actions had consequences more long reaching than I imagine he could have anticipated, and which, operating a bit like time bombs, have been going off only some years after the Cardinal's death.

It was essentially Cardinal Hume who sought to somehow reconcile the position of the Catholic Church with what was, at the time of his appointment, still essentially an Anglican establishment strongly suspicious of Catholics, or " Papists", as they were still sometimes called. One of the ways Cardinal Hume wished to make the Church in E&W acceptable was to Anglicize it, playing down its international character and distinctiveness and concentrating on its local character. He sought to qualify the primacy of Rome in the face of unspoken suspicions that Catholics had loyalties outside of the state. He hugely valued relationships with Anglican churchmen and their church and regarded ecumenism as one of this great roles. He felt that some kind of historical reconciliation at the heart of the nation was possible and was willing to make sacrifices towards it. This was of course before the ordination of women. The book is quite candid in describing how, even in the aftermath of that decision, he managed the situation with regard to those Anglican clergy who wished to cross to Rome, by insisting that it be dealt with by Westminster and keeping the Vatican out of things, so as to cause minimum damage to Anglican sensibilities. I get the strong impression that he did not trust John Paul II in the same way that he did Paul VI. He was of course appointed Cardinal by Pope Paul VI and always shared something of a spiritual bond with that enigmatic Pontiff.

What is so very striking is how very much times have changed, not just in the U.K. but also in Rome. Cardinal Hume and many of the hierarchy seem to have believed that the papacy of John Paul II was somehow a conservative interlude, and we would after his death return to a more liberal ethos. At the time few probably expected that papacy to continue for so long. Of course few expected the Anglican Communion to unravel as quickly and badly as it has, or for the Church of England to be hijacked in such an aggressively progressive direction. It now appears that all the Cardinal's hard work and sacrifice has been cast aside.

And yet you are left with a feeling that everything was done for a genuine heartfelt reason. He felt that he was living at a crossroads in Christian History and had a huge part to play which he did with great humility. But his innate Englishness did not allow him to think really long term, or as part of the Church as a whole. I think he was a little too self deprecating, especially, as being the type of English, intellectual, churchman he was, he should have been aware of the strange dichotomy within the Anglican Church. A little story might illustrate. I was at dinner with some people about a year ago. There were ten or so around the table. Conversation was generally about Culture, Church music, Church Conservation, etc. At one point my rosy cheeked neighbour leaned towards me and said, " I must be true, really, mustn't it, the scriptures, eternal life and all that". Afterwards, as we were leaving, another guest and I were talking in the street, he said " I must dash I'm reading the lesson at XXXX Church at 8.30 in the morning. ". I said, " Well, so am I, here in our local church". At which point he pulled himself up a bit and asked, " At The Anglican Church?", to which I replied, " No, at our little Catholic Church, around the corner". He put his hand on my shoulder and laughed good naturedly, " Dear Boy, that doesn't quite count, I think you'll find it's not the same thing at all, you know".

All said, however, you can not but love Basil Hume the man.

I think the powerful effect which Cardinal Hume's personality and his deeply held commitments had on his fellow churchmen may go some way to explaining the refusal of today's hierarchy to take on board Benedict XVI's revitalisation of the church through a reorientation of the liturgy, a reassertion of Catholic identiry, and a firm hand on the rudder of the Bark of St. Peter.

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