Basil Hume, who died of cancer in hospital on June 17 at the age of 76, never wanted to lead the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and he certainly had no designs on the papacy though he was often talked about as “papabile”.
A diffident Benedictine priest who would have been happy to spend his life at his beloved Ampleforth Abbey in north Yorkshire, he was the surprise choice in 1976 to take over from the pugnacious John Heenan as Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.
Despite his initial misgivings and a charming awkwardness at the announcement of his elevation, Basil Hume went on to win a national and international reputation among bishops, politicians and believers of all denominations as a wise, compassionate and pragmatic man of God.
His appointment to Westminster was a moment of genius by the Vatican. As abbot of Ampleforth he had made a mark in church circles as a thinker, but he was virtually unknown in the outside world. Yet his humility, his charisma, his patent absence of any personal ambition and, most of all, his air of one who walked in God’s shadow, quickly won him a place in English hearts.
In a country where Roman Catholics were excluded from public life until 1834 and where in the 1950s and 1960s cities like Liverpool still suffered a sectarian divide as bitter as Belfast, Hume personified the final healing of the wounds of King Henry VIII’s Reformation. Some came to regard him, rather than successive controversial Anglican archbishops of Canterbury, as the spiritual leader of the nation.
A quintessentially English figure in his upper middle-class background and accent, his network of friendships with Establishment figures and his gift for diplomacy, the reluctant cardinal became a formidable politician in both church and secular spheres. Few if any ever had a bad word to say about him.
On homelessness, schools and the status of refugees, he used his influence discreetly but effectively to persuade a series of government ministers to take the edge off what he regarded as unduly harsh policies. Only when politicians failed to respond did he take his fight to public platforms.