BOOK REVIEW / Cardinal virtues that triumph against hostility: 'Cardinal Hume' - Peter Stanford: Geoffrey Chapman, 14.95 pounds

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BASIL HUME has gained a respect and affection accorded few public figures in this country. What is the basis of this spectacular success against the odds? As anyone who understands the national character knows, there was once a deep hostility among English people towards the Irish nation in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular.

That hostility stems in part from the Reformation. The Roman church showed understandable pique in having to witness what it regarded as the nationalisation of its assets. It would have been safe enough in applying spiritual sanctions on this score. But calling for Roman Catholics to overthrow the British government put it in a different league. From then on the Roman church was seen in the popular mind as fomenting treason.

The reinstatement of the Roman hierarchy in the middle of the last century did nothing to assuage public worries about the foreignness of the church or its hidden agenda. Calls for the conversion of England are still guaranteed to excite all the old worries, as Cardinal Hume must have realised after the latest outburst. And as if that is not bad enough, the popular view is still that the Roman church is an organisation primarily catering for the needs of Irish immigrants.

In setting Cardinal Hume in context, Stanford produces a fine series of miniature portraits of his predecessors. Two stand out. Stanford is undoubtedly right in his evaluation of Henry Manning. Only three figures of the last century had truly mass appeal. One was Gladstone, another was Shaftesbury, and the third was Manning. He is one of the great undervalued figures of the Roman church and of British public life. The poor lined the streets of London on the day of his funeral, just as they did for their other hero, Lord Shaftesbury.

Equally undervalued is Cardinal Hinsley, whose Churchillian qualities were exactly right in the lead-up to the war with Hitler. With the Axis powers predominantly Catholic, the position of Roman Catholics in England could so easily have been different. Moreover, the effect on English Christianity if Hinsley had lived longer, and George Bell had been rightly promoted to Canterbury after William Temple's death, is one of the many 'ifs' of history.

Stanford presents the choice of Hume for the top Roman Catholic position in Britain as a surprise. But was it? It was reported at the time that the Duke of Norfolk lobbied hard for his candidate, Michael Hollings, then a parish priest in Southall. But Hume also had powerful backers. His brother-in-law at the time, Sir John Hunt, was secretary to the Cabinet, and the apostolic delegate - the Pope's eyes and ears in this country - was often to be seen on the invitation list to Downing Street receptions.

But that is all water under the bridge. What stands out now is how right the decision was, and how fortunate Britain is to have Cardinal Hume's presence in public life. Stanford captures this side rather well. The century is strong with church leaders who are set apart by and yet who simultaneously influence the politics of this country through their goodness. Hume is rightly grouped with the names of Temple, Bell and Ramsay.

Being an insider gives Stanford an added strength in his portrait of Cardinal Hume. His knowledge of the church allows him to point out the tensions existing within a growing number of younger clergy whose views are far to the right of Cardinal Hume's. What also comes through is the plain niceness of the man, his graciousness and reserve. As a political figure there are no flashy or ill-thought-out stances to report. His approach involves a careful evaluation of the facts, a quiet working behind the scenes and then, if necessary, a burst of publicity to drive home the campaign. That has been his model for each foray into political life, even when dealing with those convicted of terrorist atrocities.

Cardinal Hume, who must be nearing retirement, will be a hard act to follow. But he will leave the Roman church more greatly esteemed in English life than at any time since the Reformation.