Death of Cardinal Hume: Quiet contemplation as mourners pay respects

THE DRUNK washing his head in the marble font of holy water didn't know why Westminster Cathedral's huge bell was tolling steadily over the London rumbling traffic. Clutching a dented can of Stella Artois, the shaggy haired youth looked nonplussed when Cardinal Basil Hume's close friend and former private secretary, Father Pat Browne, gently tugged his grubby T-shirt and asked him to desist. "It's only water" grumbled the drunk.

After ushering the young man away, Father Browne, who had watched over his friend and spiritual mentor during his fight against cancer, carried on greeting the slow trickle of worshippers who had crossed London and its suburbs as soon as they had heard the news of the Cardinal's death.

There was no huge rush last night, no laying of wreaths no mementoes on the cathedral steps. It was a scene of quiet, slightly awkward contemplation, made possible only because the cathedral staff had decided to keep its doors open beyond evening mass.

Some tourists thought it was because there was a special event, another box to be ticked on their London guide book, but inside they were disappointed to see around two dozen worshippers at prayer, the mood punctuated by the gear changes of the thundering traffic outside and the occasional clink of another coin in the donation box.

Pat Coughlin, aged 89, wheezing and clutching a stick, had come as soon as he had heard the news.

"I decided to come and pay my respects to him - after all, he must have been a grand fella because the Pope asked him to stay on, didn't he?"

Dotted around elsewhere among the pews were people of all ages mainly but not exclusively women. One knelt before the single candle burning in front of the altar, with her carrier bags of shopping either side of her.

William Arbuckle, who sells The Big Issue outside the cathedral said he had packed up for the night but returned when he heard the news.

"Cardinal Hume was a very down to earth, good spiritual man," he said. "He sometimes bought The Big Issue from me. Sometimes he would say he didn't have any change and would buy it tomorrow and he was always a man of his word."

Father Browne said he had spoken with Cardinal Hume the day before he died. "He was very focused. He said `I'm ready to go' and wondered what was keeping him from going. There was no distress, no anxiety. He just had this tremendous sense that everything was going to be all right."

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