Cardinal Hume tells bishops he has cancer

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CARDINAL BASIL Hume, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, yesterday revealed that he is suffering from the advanced stages of cancer.

In letters to Catholic bishops in England and Wales and to priests in his archdiocese of Westminster, the 76-year-old cardinal said he intends to carry on working for as long as possible and that he is determined to see the new millennium.

He was admitted to hospital for tests last Sunday and stayed in until Thursday.

Cardinal Hume was due to retire a year ago, on his 75th birthday, but the Pope insisted that he stay on in the position he has held for the past 23 years.

The news that he is suffering advanced cancer will be greeted with dismay by all denominations. Since he was thrust into the limelight in March 1976, suddenly uprooted from his Benedictine monastery in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, to be Archbishop of Westminster, he has won the respect and admiration of many, for grace and intelligence, adept leadership of the Catholic community and his ability to promote dialogue with other churches.

Cardinal Hume never wanted to be head of the English Catholic Church. But yesterday he took the view that he had started so he was going to finish. "I intend to carry on working as much and as long as I can," he wrote to his bishops and priests. "I have no intention of being an invalid until I have to submit to the illness." The hunt for his successor will not begin until his resignation or death.

Cardinal Hume's appointment came as a surprise to Catholics - and a shock to him. In 1976 he was abbot of Ampleforth, a Benedictine monastery which also runs one of England's most admired Catholic schools.

He was having dinner with fellow monks when he had a phone call telling him he was the next Archbishop of Westminster. "When I got the news I was rather shattered, rather distressed," he said. "I didn't enjoy the rest of the meal."

Peter Stanford, former editor of the Catholic Herald, has said that call ushered in a new era for English Catholicism and the nation. In his 1993 biography of Cardinal Hume, he wrote: "His very Englishness has exorcised some of the nightmares in the national subconscious about the Catholic Church."

Cardinal Hume was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in March 1923 to a Protestant, Scottish-born father and a French Catholic mother. He went to Ampleforth when he was 10, mixing with the privileged elite of English Catholicism.

At 18 he entered the monastery at Ampleforth and made his solemn profession in 1945 while studying at its sister college, St Benet's Hall, in Oxford, and Fribourg University in Switzerland. He was ordained priest on 1950 and returned to Ampleforth in 1963 to teach modern languages. He became abbot the same year.

In an interview with the Independent on Sunday a year ago, he said he wished he was allowed to retire, adding: "I'm realistic enough to know that whenever you look forward to space in your life it never works out quite as you expect."