It is a privilege for me to be invited to speak to you here, in his home city of Newcastle, on the 10th anniversary of the death of George Basil Hume, monk, priest, Abbot and much loved and respected Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster.
I first met Basil Hume at his monastery of Ampleforth in the summer of 1973. It was a time of turbulence in the Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, and I was looking for a spiritual director for the English College in Rome, of which I was then the Rector; and I thought he might have a monk available for such an important work. I remember well how kindly he received me, and suggested that after compline – night prayers – we should have a good chat, which we certainly did. We took to one another at once, and I was able to tell him all the difficulties, troubles and challenges involved in being Rector of a community of 50 or 60 young men, and in effect ask for his counsel and advice. He responded by telling me all his problems and challenges in being Abbot – spiritual father – of 150 monks and priests, a hundred of whom lived and worked in the monastery (many of them in the large public school attached to it), while the rest were on parishes or engaged in other work.
During my stay, he took me round the monastery and the school, introduced me to several of his monks and gave me the “feel” of the place and of the community. I was deeply impressed by the humility, wisdom and humanity of my new acquaintance, and we became friends. I came away with two strong impressions. The first was that I had been in contact with an outstanding monk and pastor who had the qualities needed to be a fine bishop or archbishop and so have a positive influence on the Church in England beyond the confines of his monastery. My second impression was the attractiveness of the Benedictine ethos and tradition which Basil Hume exemplified and by which he had been formed.
It began back in the fifth century, in or around the year 480, when St Benedict was born in Nursia (the modern Norcia), in Umbria. This was in the heart of what have come to be known as “The Dark Ages”, when in Western Europe civilisation seemed to have disintegrated. In Italy, in the words of one historian, “The picture is one of decay, disorganisation and confusion perhaps without parallel in history…the ceaseless wars at home and abroad had thinned the population …The land was devastated by famines and pestilences…great tracts had been reduced to deserts, the people had become demoralised and degenerate, agriculture and education had well-nigh died out, and society was corrupt to the core” . On top of all this came a series of barbarian invasions. Visigoths, Goths, Huns and Vandals invaded Italy in succession; Rome and other cities were repeatedly sacked. These invaders were all either pagans or Arians, hostile to Catholicism, and a religious map of Western Europe in 485 shows it as being all under either Arian or pagan ascendancy, the fully Catholic districts being only in the Northwest corner of Gaul and in Wales and Ireland.
If we think of our own society today as troubled and anxious, we should take courage from the realisation that St Benedict’s world must have seemed infinitely more so. As a young man, he went to Rome to study, but was repelled by the corruption around him and experienced a call to a life of solitude and prayer. He retired to a cave at Subiaco, thirty miles from Rome, and for three years lived there alone, an extraordinary time of prayer and penance. But although he wanted to be cut off from the world, his fame spread and others came to join him, forming in effect a young monastic community. Before long, great Roman families were coming and asking him to educate their sons, and no less than twelve other small monastic communities grew up around Subiaco under St Benedict’s influence.
But the influence and reputation he had gained attracted jealousy and enmity, and in or about 525 he left Subiaco with twelve chosen companions and set off to establish his community elsewhere Above the small, fortified town of Cassino was a citadel high up the mountainside, and on the top of the mountain a plateau on which stood an ancient temple to Apollo. St Benedict and his monks turned the temple into a chapel dedicated to St Martin and there established the monastery for which St Benedict’s Rule was written and where the Benedictine Order as we still know it today was born.
St Benedict was not of course the founder of Christian monasticism, which already had a history of more than two hundred years by the time he was born; and there were monasteries of one kind and another all over the Christian world. Some, like the famous monastery on the island of Lerins, had large communities of monks: but many others were small, deriving their inspiration from the ascetics and hermits of Egypt and the Near East, with this asceticism reflected in the various rules they followed. St Benedict therefore was writing from within an existing tradition; and his Rule drew on the other rules known to him as well as on his own experience and his knowledge of what was happening around him.
But although much in St Benedict’s Rule echoes what is to be found in other Rules, there are crucial differences of nuance which carry the distinctive stamp of his own personality, not least in its moderation and the concessions it makes to human frailty. He calls it a rule “for beginners”, and its spirit is summed up in its injunctions to the Abbot that he should “aim to be loved rather than feared”: that he should “always prefer mercy to judgement”; and that he should “so regulate everything that the strong may desire to carry more and the weak do not turn tail”. While its emphasis throughout is on seeking God, it shows a wonderful understanding of human nature, at once merciful and resolute, generous and prudent. Its aim is to lay down a framework within which a good monastic community, whether of men or women, can become, in the words of one of Basil Hume’s friends and mentors, Fr Columba Cary-Elwes, “a place of intercession, a place of community, a showing of the meaning of the Church to the world”.
Apart from the Rule, which tells us a great deal about the man who composed it, the best picture we have of St Benedict comes from the saint who did most to propagate the Benedictine ideal, namely St Gregory the Great. Describing the ideal abbot, he says: “The thoughts of the abbot should be pure; his actions should serve as an example; he should know when to keep silent and when to talk to good purpose; he should be filled with compassion for his brethren; he should devote himself to meditation; to the upright he should be a humble companion but he should act as a resolute ruler in the battle to vanquish vice and sins; in him the care of exterior affairs should not be carried so far as to militate against the spiritual impulse, nor should the care of the inner life make him neglect the necessities of his charge.” It is clear that St Gregory, in drawing up that picture of a good abbot, had in mind Benedict himself, the kindly founder, the man of prayer and the model of the Benedictine spirit.
In the ensuing centuries, monastic communities following St Benedict’s Rule became the spiritual and intellectual fortresses in which all that was noblest in culture and learning was preserved and developed: centres of civilisation centred on prayer and the word of God, erecting buildings of beauty, cultivating the soil, educating the young and helping to care for the poor, the sick and the dispossessed. When monastic life in our own country and in other parts of Europe was extinguished at the Reformation, it continued to flourish elsewhere and today there are more than 10,000 monks and nuns across the world still following the Rule written by Benedict nearly fifteen