Cloud of Witnesses: Bernard Basset

A quick Internet search for Rev. Bernard Basset (1909-1988) will provide a lot more information about St. Bernard, and the showing of hounds, than what pertains to this Jesuit who was one of the world’s beguiling retreat directors. Much of his appeal was from an enthusiasm for fugitive shards of joy: Recorded retreat addresses have repeated appeals to walk in the garden and take in the phlox and hibiscus. He did not conceal his lifelong talent as a pantomime librettist. For more than 30 years his transatlantic familiarity with America made him an ecclesiastical sort of R G. Wodehouse. He was the rare clergyman of whom it is not pejorative to say that everyone liked him. Everyone I knew, anyway, except a former pastor of the Church of St. Agnes in Manhattan, and that may have been only momentary. Father Basset told me that the greatest failure of his life was preaching the Three Hours on Good Friday there and ending too soon. Monsignor Brew was furious that this Englishman had shortened our Lord’s Passion and let him know it.

If in him there seemed no darkness at all, some who lived in perpetual storm clouds considered that eccentric. John Stuart Mill thought that a paucity of eccentricity was dangerous: “The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage it contained.” Father Bernard gloried in that triad. From an old Catholic family, going back to recusant times, he was sent to Stonyhurst. A fellow schoolboy there, Tom Burns, remembered “a tall, stooping, bespectacled figure, a non-stop talker with a high voice and somewhat haughty intonation…. His was an old-fashioned, family-formed, sort of piety. It came to be increasingly seasoned with a light-hearted cynicism and irrepressible sense of fun—all of which developed into genuine spirituality.”

For more than 20 years he wrote very funny Christmas essays for the Tablet, and the humor threaded his long line of books, the first of which was We Neurotics. His heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, publishing such titles as Priest in the Presbytery: A Psycho-ecclesiastical Extravaganza. An English provincial called his history of the English Jesuits from Campion to Martindale “a magnificent tale racily told.” While distrusting the tendency to call any new book a classic if you agree with it entirely, I expect his chronicles of the Jesuits to be around at least as long as his biography of Thomas More, Born for Friendship, which raises the chancellor up and sits him with a tankard of ale across your kitchen table. “If we wish to pray well,” he wrote, “then reading is vital, any reading that helps us to pay attention and to maintain our search for God.” His prayer bore evangelical fruit. He reinvigorated the Sodalities of Our Lady in England, and his confessional became a school of prayer.

The Society of Jesus made room for his singular personality, as it had done in another sphere for Gerard Manley Hopkins. After eight years as a parish priest in the Scilly Isles, he moved near Newman’s old haunts in Littlemore. There, he lived in the long shadows of the Oxford spires where in bright youth he had finished a brilliant degree. Overlong illness encumbered his twilight but was no burden to his ebullience while in the Catholic nursing home on Oxford’s Cowley Road. Both legs had been amputated, and he related this with sparkling and unaffected cheerfulness: Several months after the first leg, the doctors advised removing the second, and this relieved him of the fuss of being fitted for an artificial limb. I saw him days before he died and his parting words were: “I have loved St. Ignatius and Newman. All my life I have studied them. But had Ito do it over again, I’d have read nothing but St. Paul. Yes. St. Paul. It’s all there.”

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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