A skilled author, accomplished journalist, and polymathic conversationalist, Peter Hebblethwaite will yet be remembered as the world's pre-eminent "Popologist" - and if the word does not exist, it must be coined. For the past 20 years a watcher of Popes,Hebblethwaite was the author of the definitive biography of the two key Pontiffs of the 20th century, John XXIII and Paul VI. But it was as a commentator on the ways of the Vatican that he made his reputation.
As a young and emerging Jesuit priest, Hebblethwaite had the good fortune to attend the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council as Peritus or adviser on theological matters to the bishops. The heady atmosphere of the Sixties, when the church of Romewas in dry dock for a complete refit, took firm hold of him and he was forever charged with a curiosity and even proprietorial interest in the machinations of the Eternal City and its incumbent Pope.
Born a Mancunian, Hebblethwaite was educated by the De la Salle Brothers and on leaving school joined the Society of Jesus in 1948. It was a vintage year for the order in which he met up with a wide span of talent that was meat and drink to his precocious energies.
Musically gifted, he took a leading part in liturgical activities as celebrated by a Tridentine, backward-looking religious body. The lengthy Jesuit training began with his being singled out as a promising student to take his philosophy studies in France. Three years at Chantilly where the courses were far more exhilarating than those he would otherwise have taken in England, proved to be a formative experience. He soon spoke French, philosophised and expounded as if his native Manchester was somewhere south of Bordeaux. Above all, he fell in love with the works of the novelist Georges Bernanos, who became the subject of his first published book in 1965.
Returning to England, he began his Oxford degree course at Campion Hall. His chosen course was Modern Languages for which two skills were needed. It is a measure of his ability that he had only taken to German the Easter before he went up. Three years later came the predictable First Class honours. Two years teaching at Mount St Mary's, a Jesuit boarding school outside Sheffield, followed; Hebblethwaite proved himself an innovative and stimulating pedagogue who took immense pains with his pupils. He scored notable success in seeing many of them on to university, especially his beloved Oxford. After four years' theology at Heythrop College, during which he was ordained priest in 1963, he went back to France for a final year of spiritual formation beforehe was appointed editor of the Month in succession to Fr Philip Caraman.
It was from here, after eight energetic years, that Hebblethwaite resigned the priesthood in order to marry Margaret Speaight. Initially back to Oxford as a lecturer in Modern Languages at Wadham, he soon felt the pull back to Rome. In 1975, his account
of the fast- forward movement in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council, The Runaway Church, set a seal on his career as a Vaticanologist. His grasp of the modernising movements that were sweeping both the structure and the thought processes of the Roman church was magisterial and yet he was able to convey them in a lively and populist manner.
With the sensitivity of a butterfly hunter, Hebblethwaite could breathe life into the least interesting statement from the Roman curia to tell all and sundry the workings of their mind. His comments were always reformist, passionately Catholic, yet lace d with a healthy arm's-length approach to Rome (he loved Fr Ronald Knox's bon mot "never go down to the engine room, you'll only feel sick").
By this time Hebblethwaite's career was in full flood. In 1979 he was appointed European correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, the leading Catholic weekly in the United States. And in 1984 his monumental life of his hero Pope John XXIII was published to international acclaim. A thoughtfully crafted life of Paul VI followed, published last year: both works involved Herculean research, and as the second tome was achieved Hebblethwaite's health began to show the first signs of deterioration. Hisfinal book, The Next Pope, due to be published in the New Year, is a beguiling, informative, above all witty account of how the conclave of cardinals select their new leader.
Hebblethwaite went on many papal journeys, including those to Poland and to Africa. He contributed regularly to the Tablet, and wrote obituary articles for the Independent, the last of them three weeks ago, on Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, and Cardi n al Vicente Enrique y Tarancn. Latterly he was deeply downcast by papal pronunciations debarring women from the priesthood. He always viewed the church as an organisation that was infinitely capable of reform and growth rather than as a God-made edifice
that must be guarded from the erosion of time.
Hebblethwaite was never happier than when sitting with friends expounding, explaining, and investigating the latest news from Rome, the future political shape of Europe, or the prospects of England's rugby team.Reuse content