The Word Among Us

Lent 2010 Issue

He Taught Us to Love

Cardinal Hume's Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ

By: Henry Wansbrough, OSB

He Taught Us to Love: Cardinal Hume's Meditations on the Seven Last Words of Christ by Henry Wansbrough, OSB

When Basil Hume, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, was told that he had cancer, "and not in the early stages," his first reaction was to go to the hospital chapel and pray for half an hour before the crucifix.

A few days later he wrote to his priests to tell them the news, adding, "I have received two wonderful graces. First, I have been given time to prepare for a new future. Secondly, I find myself—uncharacteristically—calm and at peace."

On various occasions, Cardinal Hume had given reflections on Christ’s "seven last words" from the cross. These verses, drawn from the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John, brought him "a message of hope," he said—possibly never more so than in his final months. It is fitting that, for the tenth anniversary of his death, these meditations have been made available as a short book: Hope from the Cross: Reflections on Jesus’ Seven Last Words.

Man of Prayer. Basil Hume was a remarkable and much-loved spiritual leader in Britain and throughout Europe. He was a monk, and then abbot, of a Benedictine monastery in a fairly remote part of northern England. Son of a professor of medicine at the University of Newcastle, he remained till the end of his life an avid supporter of the area soccer team, Newcastle United. This partly explains his popularity in the city of Newcastle, where his statue now stands in the main square.

A natural leader, he quickly made his mark. In the years following his surprise appointment as archbishop, Hume became president of the European Bishops Conference and was widely mentioned as a possible candidate for pope.

Cardinal Hume was also a man of prayer. But although he spoke of having had two "beatific vision" experiences in the course of his life, he almost never found it easy to pray. Still, he remained faithful to his times of prayer and to his monastic office, the psalms that he had prayed in choir during his monastery years. His copy of the Book of Psalms is a very personal item, filled with his own scribblings and listings of favorites. Perhaps because he experienced such challenges in prayer and persevered through them, Hume became a credible and effective spiritual teacher. His first book, Searching for God, remains constantly in print and has helped thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics alike come to a deeper life with God.

Father Basil’s witness to prayer was instrumental in my own vocation as a Benedictine monk and priest. I met him while I was attending the high school attached to the monastery—he was rugby coach, and I was captain of the team. One evening, as he and I were selecting the players for the next day’s match, the bell for Compline sounded. He took me along to join the monks for prayer, and I was profoundly struck by the sense of family that these men demonstrated.

When I was a young monk, Father Basil was dean of my studies. Later he became my abbot. I came to know him as a man totally without pretensions, humorous, and fun. Still, I found his holiness daunting at times: He could see straight through you and tell you more than you wanted to know about yourself!

Words to Live By. After hearing of his cancer, Cardinal Hume continued with his duties as archbishop as long as possible. Then, on his hospital bed, he was assailed by the blackness of the curtain looming before him—though, as he said, he could see around it. He lay, unable to pray, but looking devotedly at the crucifix. "I’m ready to go. I’ve waited long enough," he told a young friend during those last days. Surely, he was pondering Jesus’ last hours and the words that he spoke as he faced death.

Hope from the Cross presents Hume’s simple and direct meditations in a way that forcefully brings to mind the final scene of his life. As the book’s preface helpfully explains, Christ’s "seven last words" were first put together for a Good Friday service by a Jesuit priest in Peru, after massive devastation by earthquakes over three hundred years ago. The devotion spread around the world, taking various forms.

In Hope from the Cross, each "word" comes with a prose meditation, followed by a reflection in verse that calls for especially slow and prayerful reading. The first—"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing"—centers on the thought that forgiveness is always available, if only we will accept it. Jesus loved those soldiers, even as they were nailing him to the cross; so does God love me, "even when I have strayed from God or done wrong."

Father Basil was writing from his own experience. He himself was always ready to ask forgiveness, and his direct way of doing this sometimes caught people off guard. Despite his high position, he remained a humble man. He took endless trouble over sermons for specific occasions and would often telephone a friend—sometimes myself—for advice and help. Afterwards he would ask, "Did I do all right?"

This Suffering World. The meditations in Hope from the Cross show how strongly aware Father Basil was of human suffering. They are shot through with an empathy for the multiform agonies that beset the human condition. He may have come from a privileged background, but he never forgot an experience he had as a teenager, during the Great Depression, when a local priest took him into the working-class slums of Newcastle. The poverty and distress he saw there made a lasting impression on his own priestly vocation and ministry. He never lost personal contact with the unemployed and homeless. He listened to their stories, gave them his clothes, and set up hostels and shelters for the homeless in London. When Mother Teresa called at his house one evening, he accompanied her to the banks of the Thames River, where the two of them chatted with the homeless in their cardboard shelters.

In 1983, Cardinal Hume felt compelled by television reports of the famine in Ethiopia. On impulse, he decided to go and see it for himself. Though this experience is not mentioned in Hope from the Cross, it is clear that several meditations recall the destitution and suffering he witnessed there.

After his return, Hume described a special scene that had stuck in his mind: "This small boy came up to me and gripped my hand. With his other hand he pointed to his mouth. This was his way of telling me he was hungry. But there was also an echo from the cross which our Lord spoke when he said, ‘I thirst.’" The next day at Mass, Hume said, he realized "the secret of Holy Communion" as never before: "When you are lost and are very hungry, you have a craving for two things: for food and drink, and for love." There is surely an echo of this in the third meditation of Hope from the Cross: "Blood—shed for us, to redeem us from sin, given to us to nourish and strengthen."

"He Taught Us to Love." Many people who have tried to express what was special about Basil Hume have said, "He taught us to love." His first act on returning to the monastery for a holiday was always to visit the elderly in the neighboring village where he had long ago been curate. In every setting—whether with a room full of students, happily discussing and encouraging, or with the Queen, the head of the Church of England, who affectionately called him "my Cardinal"—he was a living reminder of the presence, and especially the love, of God.

As you read and ponder Jesus’ last words in Hope from the Cross, you will enter into that love more deeply. Not only on Good Friday, but at any time, these reflections will bring new perspective on the suffering of the world, which Jesus took to himself on the cross and will lead you into the forgiving love of God.

Fr. Henry Wansbrough is a biblical scholar and Benedictine monk of Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire, England.

Click here to purchase "Hope from the Cross".