MANCHESTER, England—Pope John Paul II has led tributes to Cardinal George Basil Hume of Westminster, England, who died June 17. He was 76.

In a message to English Catholics, the Holy Father praised the cardinal's “great moral character, significant and unflinching commitment to ecumenism and firm leadership which helped people of all beliefs face the challenges of the latter part of this difficult century.”

The cardinal, who led English and Welsh Catholics for 23 years, was due to be buried in the Cathedral of The Precious Blood, Westminster, following a Requiem Mass on Friday, June 25.

Cardinal Hume stunned his nation in April when he revealed he had cancer, and that it was “not in its early stages.”

He told them, “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.” He pledged to work as long as possible and was only confined to a hospital since early June.

One of his last public engagements was a visit to Queen Elizabeth II to receive the Order of Merit, a personal honor. Past recipients included President Eisenhower, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Albert Schweitzer.

Five years ago the cardinal welcomed the queen to vespers at his cathedral. It was the first time a British monarch attended a Catholic service since the Reformation.

Queen Elizabeth, who always referred to him as “my cardinal,” said “he would be remembered for his outstanding contribution to the Christian life of this country.”

Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “He was goodness personified, a true holy man with extraordinary humility and an unswerving dedication.”

Anne Widdecombe of the opposition Conservative Party said he had brought the Catholic Church into the mainstream of British life. Widdecombe, who was received into the Church six years ago, said the cardinal was instrumental in her conversion, “My journey had ground to a halt. There were certain doctrines I couldn't accept and in literally 15 minutes he dispelled the doubts of a lifetime.”

Cardinal Thomas Winning of Glasgow, Scotland, praised the cardinal's combination of good sense and abundance of wisdom, adding, “Although he never allowed compromise to enter into his dealings with people, he also gave the Church's teaching as it should be, without alienating those who didn't agree with him.”

Cardinal Hume was born in the North East English city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, March 2, 1923, to a French Catholic mother and a Scottish Protestant father who was a heart surgeon.

Educated at Ampleforth, a Catholic boarding school run by Benedictine monks in the North of England, he entered the order as a novice at the age of 18 and read history at Oxford University. He obtained his licentiate in theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

He was ordained at Ampleforth on July 23, 1950, and 13 years later became abbot.

In 1976 he was the surprise choice to lead the Catholic Church in England and Wales when he was appointed archbishop of Westminster, succeeding the late Cardinal John Heenan.

He was ordained bishop and installed as the ninth archbishop of Westminster on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1976. Two months later Pope Paul Vl gave him the red hat, making him the 10th English cardinal since the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850.

His stewardship was marked by several landmarks. In 1982, it was his diplomacy that ensured that John Paul became the first pope to visit Britain, despite the diplomatic difficulties caused by Britain's war with Argentina over the Falklands-Malvinas Islands.

Responding to the Pope's words “Be generous,” he welcomed many Anglican clerics and people into the Catholic Church after the Church of England voted to ordain women in 1992. Prominent politicians and lay people were also welcomed, including the Duchess of Kent, a member of the British royal family.

Supporters of the cardinal claimed his relationship with the Pope and his balancing act between the Church's “liberal” and “traditional” wings fended off any intervention from Rome into the life of the local Church. His biographer, Peter Stanford, even claimed it was the cardinal who led opposition to the appointment of an 0pus Dei priest as bishop of Northampton in the early 1990s. But others now believe his ecclesial diplomacy has left a dangerous legacy.

Rod Peade, the British-based Australian editor of the international journal Christian Order said, “He has turned a blind eye to a whole series of abuses. I cannot believe that so many English people who were concerned about this, are now saying what a good man he was. It is typically English [that] they don't want to say anything negative about the dead.”

Peade cited the example of Father Jude Bullock who publicly admitted in 1997 that he didn't believe in God, but was left in place as parish priest and school chaplain.

“The superficial feel-good factor attached to the cardinal is enough for many to turn a blind eye to the endless scandals, spiritual corruption and loss of souls which have occurred under him,” said Peade.

In 1996 many Catholics were outraged when it was revealed by the British Catholic weekly, The Universe, that Tony Blair, a committed Anglican and then-leader of the opposition, regularly received the Eucharist while attending Mass with his Catholic wife, Cherie, at a church in the cardinal's diocese.

Blair issued a public apology to Catholics and promised not to receive Holy Communion again.

The cardinal told the newspaper's editor, Joe Kelly, “One wonders what purpose that story served.”

But to others he was a hero. The cardinal is credited with helping to persuade the Thatcher government to reopen several miscarriage of justice cases including “The Guildford Four” and “Maguire Seven” — Irish people based in Britain who were wrongly imprisoned for IRA bombings

Annie Maguire, of the “Maguire Seven” and one of those whose name he helped to clear said, “We will never forget what he did for our family. He is our savior.”

The cardinal was also instrumental in founding “The Passage,” a homeless refuge at his own cathedral. This is the center the late Diana Princess of Wales would visit in secret. But the cardinal was also a regular, despite his heavy schedule, as one homeless man told the BBC this week, “He was the kindest person I ever met.”

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.