Gratitude, not grief, for modest monk who touched the lives of so many
Paul Vallely is Associate Editor of The Independent where he writes on social, ethical, political and cultural issues. He writes leaders, features and has a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Saturday 26 June 1999
The dominant sense inside the Byzantine red-brick building, and among those who thronged the central London piazza outside, was not one of grief so much as of gratitude for the life of the monk who, through his endearing diffidence, touched the lives of so many.
The fingerprints of the late cardinal were in evidence everywhere throughout a two-hour service which embraced the diversity of the church which was brought into the mainstream of British public life in his 23 years as archbishop.
It was, aptly enough, full of paradox. There - amid the marmoreal grandeur of the great Victorian cathedral, with its heavy embossing of mosaic in gold and deep blue, and the incense rising through the shafts of sunlight from the great west window above the high altar - stood the plainest of coffins, in a pale, pale wood, unadorned. The man inside it was being buried in his black monastic habit and hood. Simplicity amid splendour: it was the story of Basil Hume's life.
The range of people present told a similar tale. The principal among the 500 priests concelebrating the requiem mass was the Pope's representative, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who had come from Rome. But a role of equal prominence was given to the late cardinal's family, which included the nuns and lay assistants who were part of his household. Three of them gave the readings and others brought the offertory gifts to the altar.
In the congregation, distinguished public figures abounded. The Duchess of Kent was there to represent the Queen. Tony Blair, was there with his wife, Cherie, and son Euan. So was the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. Among many politicians were William Hague and Paddy Ashdown. But there were also people there in T-shirts, who knew the cardinal as Fr Basil from his "at homes" for teenagers or support for pilgrimages to Lourdes.
Likewise, the large numbers of jowly Catholic dignitaries, many of them in the Ruritanian outfits of the various orders of papal knights, were balanced by the ordinary faithful, clutching their rosary beads.
And the heavyweights from the Catholic hierarchy were matched by their counterparts from other faiths: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, led a number of Anglican bishops; the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, although unable to participate in the service under Jewish law, attended in an ante-room; eastern patriarchs and bishops were also present.
The wide variety of people to whom Basil Hume was special was evident. But it was in the liturgy of the word and of the music that the presence of this Benedictine from the north of England was most keenly felt. He had chosen much of it himself and it spoke of the breadth he brought to the church in the past two decades.
The first hymn was from that most English of Catholics, John Henry Newman. Then came a mesmerising polyphony from the Spanish Renaissance composer Victoria, sung by the 24 boys and 11 lay-clerks of the Westminster Cathedral choir which Cardinal Hume saved from closure when he took office. After that came a Beati quorum via from an Anglican church music stalwart, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, and finally a hymn from the great Methodist tradition of John Wesley.
There was similar breadth in the readings, which also reflected Basil Hume's ability to be unpredictable and profound. The most unexpected was a reading from the Book of Wisdom (13:1-9), which was a paean to the God responsible for a world of beauty, with a sting-in-the-tale admonition for those who see the former and fail to make the connection to the God who made it.
The late cardinal's former secretary, John Crowley, now Bishop of Middlesbrough, took up his mentor's thinking in the homily. "His provocative choice of reading from Wisdom is a very strong passage, reflecting the cardinal's deep and growing concern that the judgment on our age might finally be: We were clever but not wise. If they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things."
It was a message unpalatable to our times, but to which somehow people would listen coming from Basil Hume, probably because his deep Benedictine spirituality was evident to all.
"In a quite extraordinary way it seemed that everyone thought of him as their personal friend," Bishop Crowley said. Among the sackfuls of letters which swamped Archbishop's House when his terminal illness became known, many began with the words, `I am not a member of your church' or `I am not a believer'. Each letter bore its own witness to a man of God who had touched so many lives by his spirit-filled presence.
"In a quite beautiful way that almost universal appeal was symbolised when Her Majesty the Queen conferred on Cardinal Hume the Order of Merit. How moved he was by the graciousness of that gesture."
It was a beautifully judged tribute by Bishop Crowley, which could have come from the pen of Basil Hume itself: it had the same gentle humour, thoughtful simplicity and something unexpected.
He spoke of the cardinal's dying days: "All during that initial period of waiting for death he found, to his delight, that his prayer was amazingly sweet, full of consolation. But then the curtain came down, and it was back to the darkness of faith. But, `I wasn't worried', he said, `because I knew what was behind that curtain'."
And, as the late cardinal was so fond of doing, he ended with a question. Summing up the gift to the church which was Basil Hume's life he concluded: "If such were the gift, what must God be like, the giver of that gift?" The question hung in the air and the church was filled with a swelling of affirmation.
When the mass was ended, a group of elderly Benedictines came forward to sing the Suscipe. The words are the same as those used by a young monk as he makes his first vows at the start of his life in service to God: "Receive me Lord, according to thy word."
As the Latin faded away, the coffin was carried down the aisle as the choir sang In Paradisum from the Faure Requiem. There, in the Chapel of St Gregory and St Augustine, at the back of the cathedral of which he had been so reluctant an archbishop, George Basil Hume, monk, was interred. Requiescat in pace.
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