Robert Beaken remembers the late Cardinal Basil Hume OSB


In 1987-88 when I was an Anglican ordinand, I had the great good fortune to study as an ecumenical exchange student at the Venerable English College and Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Slightly to my surprise, I found myself quite often encountering Cardinal Basil Hume, the Archbishop of Westminster, who would stay at the English College when visiting Rome on official business.

My first real encounter with the Cardinal was one warm Sunday in early October 1987 when he appeared at lunch in the college refectory. Afterwards, the staff and seminarians gathered in the garden for coffee. The Cardinal entered the garden, accompanied by the rector and vice-rector of the English College and a little group of priests and monsignori, and proceeded to do the rounds. He got to me and enquired who I was. ‘Robert Beaken, one of the Anglican students here,’ I replied. ‘Surviving?’ he asked me. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘and enjoying it enormously.’ ‘Oh, that’s dangerous!’ said the Cardinal, ‘you don’t want to enjoy it too much!’ Everyone laughed and the Cardinal moved on. A few minutes later I felt an arm across my shoulder and turned round to see Cardinal Hume who had shaken off the others. ‘Are you still enjoying it?’ he asked me quietly and seriously. I noticed he had gentle eyes that did not miss much. ‘Yes’ I answered. His humour returned, and, banging my shoulder vigorously, he said ‘Well, make sure they look after you here, do you hear? Any complaints, come to me!’ The last remark was bellowed out for all to hear.

I was struck on that occasion by Cardinal Hume’s humility, humour and concern. He was approachable and was rather more the Benedictine monk than the cardinal. His dress, too, was noteworthy: an ancient pair of black trousers, a black jacket that didn’t match and a black clerical shirt that had been washed so often that it had lost much of its dye.

I met the Cardinal on many more occasions. I walked to and from the Vatican with him several times and once accompanied him to Pope John Paul II’s early morning Mass in the Apostolic Palace.

Much has been written of Cardinal Hume’s prayerfulness. He seemed to me to radiate prayer. Another memory is of him prayerfully celebrating Mass in the English College chapel with great simplicity and quiet dignity. He was an innately humble man: I recall how embarrassed and flustered he became when everyone stood up whenever he entered a room in the college.

I also recall the Cardinal’s great sense of humour and fun. He allowed the seminarians to pull his leg and he gently pulled their legs in return. I recall him keeping his sixty-fifth birthday in Rome. He had us in stitches when, with mock alarm, he announced that he was one of very few people in England who would not receive an old age pension, because the bursar at Ampleforth Abbey had been too mean to pay the national insurance stamps.

The Cardinal sometimes used his sense of humour to make a point. It was recalled how on one occasion he had visited a rather grand Roman Catholic church in London. Everyone was waiting on the steps of the church, trying to spot the first sign of the Cardinal’s chauffeur-driven car, when a red London double-decker bus pulled up at a bus stop outside and Cardinal Hume alighted, wearing his old black clothes and carrying his cardinal’s robes in a plastic carrier-bag. The point was not lost.

When the time drew near in 1988 for me to leave the Venerable English College and return home for my ordination in the Church of England, I had half an hour’s private talk with Cardinal Hume in his study. We spoke about my time in Rome, ecumenism, the ordained ministry and the spiritual life, and at the end he said a prayer and gave me a blessing.

On my final evening at the English College, the Cardinal ordained a priest in the college chapel. His sermon is etched in my mind. He said that a priest’s life is marked by two things: prayer and suffering. Prayer is the life-blood of a priest. It must undergird all his pastoral work and Christian teaching. Without prayer, the priest will dry up. Another part of the vocation of a priest is to suffer: from isolation, at the hands of the institutional Church, and at the hands of some of the people he has to deal with in the parish.

Cardinal Hume went on, however, to speak movingly in that ordination sermon about the deep joy to be experienced in fulfilling one’s vocation and opening one’s heart to the love of Jesus Christ, who uses the priest to reach out to other people.

Then, something unexpected happened in the ordination service. After the Eucharistic prayer and before administering Holy Communion, the Cardinal came over to where I was kneeling, carrying the Blessed Sacrament in a ciborium. He clearly could not give me Holy Communion as I was an Anglican, and I wondered what was going to happen. Bending down, he said: ‘I pray that Almighty God may pour upon you the riches of His grace for your own ministry in His Church,’ and then making the sign of the Cross with the ciborium he added, ‘and may Almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.’ It was an intensely moving moment, and one that I have never forgotten. You will begin to understand why I often pray for Christian unity.

I returned to England after breakfast the next morning. I sent my ordination cards to Cardinal Hume when I was ordained deacon in the Church of England a few months later and priest the following year. I received warm replies from him each time, signed simply: ‘Yours devotedly, Basil Hume.’

I last saw the Cardinal in Portsmouth Roman Catholic cathedral at the enthronement of a new bishop. We managed a short talk afterwards and he asked me how I was getting on in parish life.  I told him how much I was enjoying parish ministry and was rewarded with a lovely smile and a characteristic flash of his blue eyes.

Cardinal Basil Hume died in London on 17 June 1999, aged 76. As he approached his death, he wrote to his priests: ‘Above all, no fuss.’

It is still too early to say how history will come to judge the Cardinal. It will take time for archival historians to work through his papers, establish their historical context and form a balanced opinion. That sort of thing is best done after some time has passed.

Suor Pia, one of the nuns who worked at the English College, once told me she thought the Cardinal was ‘a great man.’ My own recollection of Cardinal Basil Hume is of a warm-hearted, prayerful man, who was a most loving ambassador for his Master, Jesus Christ.


Dr Robert Beaken is priest-in-charge of Catsfield and Crowhurst in the Diocese of Chichester. His latest book Cosmo Lang, Archbishop in War and Crisis has been recently published in paperback by T and T Clark.