This article appears in the Aug 2006 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

The Monk Cardinal

John Crowley

Dr. Seymour Spencer writes: When, in my review of Howard's biography of Cardinal Hume, I suggested Bishop Crowley as a possible ‘spiritual biographer’ Mgr Vladimir Felzmann sent my review to Bishop Crowley, who, expressing the hope time might one day allow him to do this enclosed these unpublished ‘Reflections’ as he called them, to Mgr. Felzmann, who passed them to me, leading to Bishop Crowley's consent for first publication in the CMQ.

Reviewers have in general been kind to Anthony Howard's biography of Cardinal Hume. Having now had the chance of a first quick read, it's easy to see why. The writing, as you would expect from such a seasoned practitioner's pen, is silkily smooth, a ‘Rolls Royce’ of a read as one reviewer called `The Monk Cardinal'. It takes you on a "well upholstered ride" (the same reviewer) from his Tyneside beginnings in 1923 to journey's end in June 1999 at the Hospital of St. John and Elizabeth in North West London. Some reviewers have even expressed a view that this professionally crafted official portrait of the Benedictine Monk at Westminster could hardly have been bettered, all the more so (they add) because this `warts (relatively small ones) and all' account of a distinguished Churchman's life has been done by someone outside the Catholic ranks, "a wistful agnostic"to use the author's own self description.

For my part, though finding little about which to complain in an engrossing read, I was left wanting something more. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor in praising `The Monk Cardinal' as "an excellent first attempt"suggested that next time round the biographer would have the firm foundations laid by Anthony Howard's painstaking trawl through all the late Cardinal's papers entrusted to him by the literary executors. Fantasising a little about what one might suggest to the future historian for further exploration, I came up with a few starters. And if the focus of these musings is entirely Cardinal Hume's time at Westminster, it in no way implies that what went before, in particular his monastic years, isn't supremely important. Rather, it is simply because the London years cover that period of which I can speak with a little inside knowledge.

To that future biographer then I would suggest in the first place, speak more about your subject's prayer life; - not so much in terms of what it produced "up top" in a steady flow of rich spiritual output throughout his Westminster years, focus rather on the long distance runner's fidelity to prayer, because that was the unmistakable source of the spiritual stamina which sustained him to the very end. In the six years I spent under the same roof as him - coinciding with his own first years in the job - his steadfastness to long chunks of time investment in prayer was truly `converting' to witness. There was no skimping of those early morning vigils in the Archbishop's House chapel, whether he had been in bed at a reasonable hour the night before (on an evening off after a long day he could happily be tucked up between his sheets soon after 9pm TV news), or whether he had been out to all hours at a late night `do'. If that fidelity in days of health was impressive enough, all the more so was the same prayer discipline when his health began to fail him. By that time I was long gone from SW1, but other private secretaries have the same tale to tell, of that tall loping figure slipping into his place to the front left of the chapel at a testingly early hour. Such faithful perseverance, in the work of prayer, was the ballast which, in season and out, kept him steady throughout those years of high office. He kept on keeping on, as I once heard him advise others who desired to pray.

Another thing which strikes me about the Hume years was their sheer longevity. When he came to London in 1976, the erstwhile Abbot of Ampleforth was a youngish 53, a squash playing and Battersea Park running prelate. By the time he set off for that `new future', as he referred to it in a farewell letter to his priests in early summer 1999, he was 77,the third longest serving Archbishop of Westminster after Cardinals Manning (27 years) and Bourne (32 years). In Anthony's Howard's book, with its largely thematic approach (chapters apiece, for example, on the McGuire 7 and Birmingham bombings case, one on Bruce Kent, another on his educational difficulties with Cardinal Vaughan School etc),one scarcely gets a sense of year following upon year in a gradual unfurling spread over nearly a quarter century. The reality was that George Basil Hume was a busy diocesan bishop - tugged at considerably by national and international duties - plying his Gospel trade over the long haul of 23 years through that multiplicity of events, smaller as well as larger, as every bishop will recognise. The big set pieces came and went, but the steady bread and butter ministry to his priests and people was the clear backbone to it all. He was never happier, for example, than when setting off around teatime, after a day perhaps in less naturally congenial activities, in order to celebrate a parish Mass in some part of his extensive diocese. The formula was utterly simple, and yet so effective. Mass first in the local church, followed by a `bun-fight' in the hall where, however fleetingly, he would grasp the hand of everyone present, look them in the eye and leave them feeling well met. His capacity to remember name and faces was truly astonishing.

During my six years at his side in that parish merry go round I must have heard him preach on hundreds of occasions and, human being that he was, there were occasions when the content will have been more `on the hoof' than at others. But I never once heard him speak without some spiritual profit. Why? Because here was someone who inhabited his words, who spoke from the inside out; its invariable affect was to raise one's mind and heart into the presence of God.

Speaking of that aspect of Cardinal Hume's giftedness prompts me to recall something which delighted my heart on a number of occasions, and particularly in his early period at Westminster. During those "salad days" he used quite often to accept invitations to speak at City functions. When the time came for him to get to his feet, and only after the well heeled guests had been well fed and plentifully drunk a familiar blue haze from expensive cigars usually hung in the air. For a few opening minutes the Cardinal would cheerfully engage in some gentle `knock about', not so much by telling jokes as by the timing of his remarks, coupled with a well developed sense of the absurd or even at times, the slightly ridiculous, to which our human nature can be prone. Then he would launch into his set piece - usually something focused on the restless human heart and its need, whether recognised or not, to search for God through the good, the beautiful, and the true. To hear the proverbial pin drop is scarcely an exaggeration, all the more remarkable within a captive audience which would not wish to be described in general as fanatically religious. Whether at the parish Mass with the devout faithful or the City luncheon with the worldly wise, the reason for such high levels of receptivity was essentially the same. Here was someone speaking to his audience with immense inner authority of the God he knew and desired to make known to others. He made God real for us, and in doing so fed us the most profound level.

Anthony Howard did touch briefly on Cardinal Hume's sense of humour. He was indeed good fun to live with. A future biographer might want to explore a bit more that particularly attractive side of his character. An important clue lies in his natural ease of manner, though not without shyness at times, towards those who came his way from any walk of life. He had a special sympathy for the young person, clerical or lay, who was beginning to make their way in life. Those who became his friends soon discovered that he warmed towards the slightly less conventional character, and not least the one who treated him with a certain amount of teasing irreverence.

One of the things you discovered quickly when you went to live in that big house behind Westminster Cathedral was that its main resident didn't like an overdose of religiosity. With God there was never a problem, but GBH (as his clergy liked to refer to him) didn't have an endless relish for matters ecclesiastical. If the truth be told, much of that more political side of the Church held little interest for him. His boredom threshold, never especially high as he would sometimes ruefully admit, was much tested by ecclesiastical intrigue and gossip. He liked to relax in congenial company with good low brow humour on the `telly' or, best of all, with sport of any kind, especially football and rugby. One or two eminent churchmen who regularly stayed with him in London were, I suspect, a bit disappointed at his lack of stamina for lengthy discussions on the present state of the Church!

But let me return at the last to the essence of the man, the magnetic pole which attracted so many to him from within and outside the Church. When Pope John XXIII died, a Daily Mail editorial said of him "This good Pope walked in the presence of God as familiarly as a man walks through the streets of his native town". Without any sense of straining the comparison everyone who got to know `The Monk Cardinal', either at firsthand or through some other medium like his writing and preaching, would say much the same of him. He was a great gift to our Church and to the wider world because the glimpse he gave us of God rang profoundly true; that surely will be his enduring legacy.

The Rt. Rev. John P Crowley is Bishop of Middlesborough