In March 1976 Basil Hume, abbot of Ampleforth, set off for Rome. The news that he had been chosen as the next archbishop of Westminster and leader of English Catholics troubled him. Fretful, worried about facing a move to London and a very public life after 43 years as schoolboy, monk and abbot at his beloved Ampleforth in the wilds of North Yorkshire, he was due to meet the Pope, Paul VI. It was an encounter that fired him with courage for the task ahead, thanks to the admonition of the Pope who told Basil Hume: 'Always remain a monk.'
He was in effect telling Basil Hume to be himself. And as Anthony Howard's fascinating account of his life reveals, this was what made Basil such an effective spiritual leader not only of the Catholic church, but to an extent of the country as a whole. Despite all the panoply of his post as archbishop, and appointment as cardinal just a few weeks later, he remained the simple Benedictine monk that he had always been.
Yet, as this official biography reveals, Basil Hume was a paradox. The monk from North Yorkshire, for all his otherwordliness, was highly effective in making his influence felt in public life. His time at Ampleforth, when he was required as abbot to both be a strong leader and a pastor careful to nurture the weak and the strong, clearly stood him in good stead for his life as cardinal. He also brought to the post the self-confidence of the well-educated, English middle-class. Britain's senior Catholic clerics, since the Church's 19th-century revival, have tended to reflect their flock: mostly Irish, not particularly scholarly and with limited education. But there is another strand of English Catholicism, which is highly educated, prosperous and at ease with the establishment.
Basil Hume owed his Catholicism to his French mother, and his English certainties to his doctor father, and to his public-school education, finished off at Oxford and Fribourg, Switzerland. Howard recounts a fascinating story of lobbying on behalf of Basil Hume by a remarkable cast of characters from British public life. They included Andrew Knight, former Ampleforth pupil and by then editor of The Economist, politicians Shirley Williams and Norman St John Stevas, journalist William Rees-Mogg, and the Duke of Norfolk.
Much of this biography focuses on Basil Hume's public life at Westminster, although the first third, devoted to his years at Ampleforth, will satisfy those whose curiosity about monastic life has been stirred by the recent successful television series, The Monastery. But the book comes to life when political writer Howard is on more familiar territory, and his account of how Basil Hume, the establishment's choice for archbishop, took on the establishment, with his championing of the Guildford Four, is riveting. Basil Hume spent 13 …