William Charles, nephew of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, and educated at Ampleforth and Oxford, has co-authored a poignant volume dedicated to the life, work, and times of the Archbishop of Westminster. Charles readily admits that this work is not a biography. In fact, he advises that, “The reader in search of that is directed to Antony Howard’s beautifully written Basil Hume, the Monk Cardinal” (ix). Charles’ work is more of a compendium of events, “a set of memories and reflections, providing a series of portraits, at different stages of his life, a man who was both a monk and a cardinal, from a variety of people [i.e. his family, friends, fellow students, bishops and a former secretary] who knew him personally” (ix-x). What shines forth is both a man who loved, and was loved. His influence extending across many continents, and his message reached even those who hardly knew him. As Pope John Paul II wrote upon hearing of the Cardinal’s death in June of 1999, “I thank the Lord for having given the Church a shepherd of great spiritual and moral character, of sensitive and unflinching ecumenical commitment and firm leadership in helping people of all beliefs to face the challenges of the last part of this difficult century” (xi).
In the chapter entitled “Formed by the Family,” the reader learns through William Charles how an early experience shaped the future Cardinal’s thinking. As a young boy, he had seen a coffin being dragged through the streets of his native Newcastle. Moved by the event, “he learned of death. What he saw began a process of thought about life and death, in which he found he was unable to believe that death was the end” (p. 10).
The account entitled “Formed in the Monastery: Ampleforth Recollections,” the reader learns of Basil’s wry sense of humor. At the age of eighteen, the Benedictine monk had a difficult time navigating his long, black robe. He commented that “one was always tripping over it, especially going upstairs. It seemed to be a symbol, or parable, of what life as a religious is like—often tripping over’ (p. 23). Basil’s motto was one for all to follow. He advocated “Take life seriously. Take God seriously. But please, don’t take yourselves too seriously” (p. 165).
The most moving chapter concerns the Cardinal’s visits to Ethiopia and Auschwitz. After war and a terrible famine had occurred in Ethiopia in 1984, Father Basil felt called to see the turmoil first-hand. When asked what he hoped to achieve, he stated that “It’s like visiting someone in [the] hospital; you don’t go to ‘do’ anything there except show concern and be with them” (p. 175). Upon visiting Auschwitz two years later at the request of the pope, Basil remarked that it was “one of the most terrifying places on earth…I stood there shocked and silent, unable to grasp the enormity of the evil done on that spot. Auschwitz remains a monument to evil, a shrine to sin…I was sad and ashamed” (p. 180). Father Basil was a man of his time. His sense of compassion for all of the people that he encountered in his lifetime still resonates “ten years on.”
This book is highly recommended for those beginning to study the late Archbishop of Westminster. Those students who are already familiar with the late Cardinal’s writings will find something of value in the supplemental material provided herein.