Joys, hopes and sudden storms: Cardinal Cormac steered the Church through turbulent change
The Tablet06 September 2017
Cormac Murphy-O’ConnorCormac Murphy-O’Connor was once described by The Tablet as “everyone’s favourite bishop”. The warmth of his personality, his humour, which was not above a bit of mischief, his modesty and his outreach to everyone he met, eliciting a corresponding response from them, led one of his advisers to compliment him on “catching flies with honey, not vinegar”.
At ease with people of all sorts, of whatever age and gender, he was phenomenally good at working a room. His quality was spotted early, and preferment came smoothly. At his installation in March 2000 as the tenth Archbishop of Westminster, there was amusement among the congregation as he began his homily. He had once been on holiday in the Hebrides, he recalled, when he had come across a stone commemorating one of the Celtic saints. “Pilgrim Cormac,” the inscription read: “He went beyond what was deemed possible.”
At one point during the Mass, he slipped on the marble altar steps leading up to his throne. He recovered his balance quickly. With hindsight, some saw the episode as emblematic of his tenure of the see. For hardly had he taken possession than a media storm over his handling of clerical sexual abuse in his previous diocese of Arundel and Brighton threatened to overwhelm him. Only a rooted Christian faith, devotion to duty, strategic thinking and, beneath a sometimes bumbling manner, a touch of steel, enabled him to survive.
For more on the life of Cardinal Cormac:
Leading article Lord [Rowan] Williams Sir Anthony Kenny Baroness [Sheila] Hollins
Richard Scorer Jim Curry Austen Ivereigh James Murphy O'Connor Brendan Walsh
He was born in 1932 to Irish parents, both from County Cork, who had emigrated to England and settled in Reading. They had five sons, of whom Cormac was the youngest, and then a daughter. It was a very Catholic family. His father, George, a doctor, would attend Mass early each morning, sometimes with Cormac’s mother, Ellen, before opening his practice, and every evening the family would say the rosary together. Three of his uncles were priests, and three of his cousins. Two of his brothers, and then Cormac himself, followed the same path. The story goes that when only a few years old, he announced that he would be either a doctor or Pope. He was 15 when he declared himself. After attending the primary school that the Irish Presentation Brothers brought to Reading at his father’s instigation, he was at that time a pupil at the Christian Brothers’ Prior Park school in Bath. He was in the car with his father, who was out on his rounds. “And you, Cormac, what are you going to do?” The reply came out “quite spontaneously”, he would later recall: “I want to be a priest.”
He set out in 1950, aged 18, for the English College in Rome as a seminarian of the Portsmouth diocese. The college rector had originally demurred at having a third Murphy-O’Connor in his charge, but relented.
He grew to love Rome, and liked nothing better than a convivial get-together over a bowl of pasta and a glass or two of wine. He learned the language, which he spoke with aplomb, if not always with precision. But he found the Latin lectures at the Jesuits’ Gregorian University hard going. It was difficult not to doze off, he confessed, though he duly gained his licentiate in theology and philosophy. Standing well over 6ft tall, he proved to be a formidable player on the rugby field, as well as later on the golf course. He was also a highly accomplished pianist, having learned to play at a very early age, and was in demand when the English College presented musical entertainments such as The Mikado.
He was ordained priest by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Luigi Traglia in October 1956. Back in Portsmouth, he served as a curate, first for five years in the city’s North End – where most of the men worked in the dockyards, and were lapsed from their faith, and where there were also many war widows – and then from 1962 for three years at the larger and more prosperous parish of Fareham. He now put fully into practice an idea that had come to him in the North End, of small group meetings of parishioners in their own homes for Bible reading, prayer and shared experience of faith and life, inspired by Lay People in the Church, by the Dominican theologian Yves Congar. It became his settled conviction that this was the way to produce committed Christian believers.
He was not at Fareham for long. In Rome at this time, the reforming Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII was opening windows in the Catholic Church that had been kept sealed for decades. Cormac was enthusiastic about the transformation of the Catholic world he had known. In 1965, a dynamic new bishop, Derek Worlock, previously secretary to three archbishops of Westminster, took over at Portsmouth. He liked to have a hand in everything, and was to become the hub of the English and Welsh episcopal wheel. He had an exceptionally sharp eye for talent, and soon enlisted Cormac as his private secretary.
The young priest was gaining invaluable experience. He also came to the notice of Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, the then Archbishop of Westminster, who was seeking to cope with the upheaval in the Catholic Church in the wake of Vatican II, and saw in Cormac a reliable pair of hands. He was one of the organising team for the first meeting of the National Conference of Priests in 1970, as well as a member of the planning group for the synod of Bishops on the ministerial priesthood that met in Rome in 1971. He was also involved in the previous Synod in 1969 where Heenan asked him to speak on behalf of the priests of England and Wales. When he stood up, he “had a rush of blood to the head”, he recalled in his memoirs. He told the assembled bishops, “in execrable Latin”, that perhaps the ordination of married men should be considered. He sat down amid silence, but it was a view that he never abandoned.
No doubt Heenan was also influential behind the scenes in picking out Murphy-O’Connor to return to the English College in Rome in 1971 as rector. It was a demanding assignment. His predecessor, Monsignor Leo Alston, a scholar who had translated the Letter to the Hebrews for the Jerusalem Bible, was not well suited to guide an unruly body of seminarians reacting to the Vatican II reforms. Some students wanted to change everything, others nothing. “The trick was to let the leash out gently . . .” the future cardinal wrote later. The timetable became more flexible, the rhythm of life less prescriptive. With patience and wily diplomacy, he succeeded in stabilising the seminary and restoring the bishops’ confidence in it.
One of his innovations was to establish exchange arrangements with Anglican ordinands. The college also renewed its original function as a hospice, welcoming Christian leaders in Rome on business, starting with the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Donald Coggan, who came to see Paul VI in April 1977. Another deep friendship formed at the college was with the United Church minister Norman Goodall. Cormac was a generous host, and the cocktails he mixed became celebrated. The network of friends and colleagues he established in Rome at this time was to stand him in good stead.
It was obvious that he was likely to become a bishop, and in November 1977 he was called back early from Rome to take charge of Arundel and Brighton, carved out of the much larger Archdiocese of Southwark in 1965. Cormac was only its third bishop. It included parts of Surrey that were densely populated, conurbations such Brighton, Guildford, Weybridge and Woking, and rural areas in West Sussex. Among the inhabitants were wealthy commuters and others working in services and living on council estates who were poor. In the towns there were homeless people and refugees.
Ordained in December 1977, the new bishop quickly established himself as a father figure. He became noted for his warmth, his openness to opinion, criticism and suggestions – “Oh no, not another new idea,” his staff would sometimes mutter – and his readiness to forgive, which would later cause him trouble at Westminster. He governed collegially in association with his clergy, whom he trusted to get on with their jobs. Some Arundel priests were working in a sister diocese in Peru, where he visited them several times.
One of his new ideas, building on his experience in Portsmouth, was to invigorate the diocese by introducing a system of small parish groups. He investigated the “Renew” programme that had begun in the United States, then imported it. At one stage, there were thousands meeting regularly in this way across the diocese.
Another of his initiatives was to set up a regular youth service, which had been lacking because the diocese was relatively new. He moved quickly and picked tireless and innovative staff, based at Maryvale Pastoral Centre in Guildford. They established one of the best youth services in the country.
Cormac was always good at making links with the Establishment. He liked them and they liked him. In Arundel and Brighton some problems could best be solved if the bishop went up the hill to Arundel Castle, seat of the Duke of Norfolk, to share a gin and tonic with this brilliantly eccentric and inspirational Catholic lay leader, formerly an army general of the sort whose men would follow him anywhere.
It was during his years in Arundel and Brighton that Cormac’s ecumenical gift blossomed. In 1982 he became co-chair with the Anglican bishop Mark Santer of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Set up in 1969 to go past the Maginot Line of doctrine to the formative Christian truths lying behind, the commission had accomplished minor miracles. In the first phase of its work, from 1970 to 1981, the two communions had achieved agreed statements on the Eucharist and ministry. When Pope John Paul II visited Britain in 1982 and processed with Archbishop Robert Runcie down the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, it seemed to some as though reunion could come in their lifetime.
The second session of ARCIC, from 1983 to 2005, with Cormac and Mark Santer at the helm, again did the near-impossible, producing in 1998 an agreed statement on “The Gift of Authority” that challenged both communions. Ecumenism must flourish at the local level, he would insist, and off he would go on one of his stories: it was like these three tailors who advertised their services. The first claimed to be the best tailor in the world, the second the best tailor in the town, and the third the best tailor in the street. All the customers flocked to the last. But the golden age that had seemed to presage reunion in 1982 was fading. When in 1992 the synod of the Church of England voted for the ordination of women, there was rejoicing in Anglican ranks but the ecumenical train hit the buffers. Cormac never budged in his rooted opposition to this step, while always repeating that ecumenism was “a road with no exit”.
Towards the end of his years in Arundel and Brighton, he confided in his memoirs, he felt he had done as much as he could. He was planning a diocesan synod for 2002 to work out a blueprint for the future and intended then to offer his resignation. It was not to be. A challenge that he did not expect awaited him. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume, died just short of the millennium in 1999. This austere and spiritual Benedictine monk, a former abbot of Ampleforth, had established himself as a sort of guru to the nation. It would be a hard act to follow.
With some help from The Tablet, the news that Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was the chosen successor was leaked in The Sunday Times. Next day the nuncio to Great Britain, Spaniard Pablo Puente, greeted the appointee in his idiosyncratic English: “Father, the elephant is out of the bottle.” Cormac now had to re-create his life. Instead of walking his dog in the grounds around his beautiful home in Storrington, he had to take up residence in the cavernous and palatial interior of Archbishop’s House beside his cathedral.
The media wanted to know whether the new arrival would call himself a conservative or a progressive. He was neither, he told them. He was a man of the Church. There were favourable comments at the beginning, but hardly had he settled in than a storm broke around him that might have swept him away. It centred on his treatment of a paedophile priest, Michael Hill, in his previous diocese of Arundel and Brighton.
Clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, previously covered up, had been dragged into the light of day in the 1980s with devastating consequences. It became clear that paedophilia was an institutional feature in the Church, and that everywhere the Church had reacted to it in the same way. Offending priests would simply be moved to another parish, where they would transgress again. The secular authorities would not be informed.
Bishops had not understood that perpetrators were subject to a compulsive, recidivistic pathology, leading them to become self-deceiving split personalities who would automatically and blatantly lie about their habit. And always for the Church authorities the centre of concern was the abusers, not the child or teenage victims, who were not believed. Cormac later would sometimes say that he had found it difficult to conceive that a priest could ever be an abuser of children.
In 1994 and 1996 the English and Welsh bishops had belatedly issued guidelines on how to deal with abuse cases. Cormac always denied that Hill was moved between parishes because of a series of complaints of abuse against him. He sent him to the Dympna therapeutic centre in London for counselling, and then, after further complaints, to a “boot camp” clinic in Stroud run by the Servants of the Paraclete. A series of psychiatric advisers delivered reports, all warning with various degrees of emphasis that there was a high risk that Hill would offend again.
Cormac withdrew Hill’s licence to preach and for a short time he worked in secular employment, then came back to his bishop in tears begging for forgiveness and another chance. Fatally, in 1985 Cormac allowed him a limited ministry as a chaplain at Gatwick airport, reckoning wrongly that Hill would have no opportunity there to offend again. But he did.
Hill was convicted and jailed for five years in 1997. In 2002, after confessing to other crimes, he faced new charges and was jailed again. Suspecting that there was more to be uncovered, and drawing a parallel with the case in the United States of Cardinal Bernard Law, who had to resign, the media returned in force to the attack in 2002 – further incentivised by fake data – scrutinising the wider record of treatment of abusive priests in Arundel and Brighton. At one staff meeting Cormac sat with his head in his hands. Then he stood up. He would take it on, he said.
He sent the various Arundel and Brighton case files to a solicitor, asking him to judge whether he had acted correctly. When the reply came back that he had, he called a press conference, with cameras excluded. It was like a bear pit. But he had faced the scandal down. What saved him was the establishment in 2000 of a commission under Lord Nolan, a Catholic and a highly respected retired judge who had recently chaired an inquiry into standards in public life.
Michael Nolan quickly assembled an independent expert nine-person group, including a retired Appeal Court judge and an assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who reported in only six months. They made 83 recommendations to be applied throughout the Church. The bishops of England and Wales accepted them all. There was now to be external lay oversight in the parishes and a central coordinating agency.
Cormac always regretted that the Irish Catholic Church in particular did not follow his example and that the religious orders, jealous of their independence, took their own line – with some disastrous results. Later, he wrote to Pope Benedict suggesting that the general secretaries of all bishops’ conferences should set up similar review bodies. The Pope responded positively, but it did not happen.
In his memoirs, Cormac confessed to feeling “shame and anguish”. In the summer of 2000, he had even suggested to the nuncio that the conferral of a red hat should be postponed. Rome went ahead regardless, and in February 2001 he was raised to the rank of cardinal. A notable sign of support for him came from the Queen, who invited him to preach at the parish church on her Sandringham estate in Norfolk in January 2002.
Meanwhile, the ordinary life of the archdiocese had to be carried on. Cardinal Hume had divided it into five areas, each with its own assigned bishop, curia and bureaucracy. Cormac – and Rome – wanted the lines of authority to be clearer. There was some grumbling among the priests (“Stalinesque”, was how one of them described the new cardinal’s move) when in mid-2001 he decided to abolish the existing arrangement and began to appoint new auxiliary bishops whose area responsibilities now were pastoral, rather than geographical. He moulded them into a team, just as he did the Bishops’ Conference.
He always regarded himself as a priests’ bishop, and in Arundel and Brighton had established a Ministry to Priests programme. At Westminster he appointed a priest as amicus clero, “a friend to clergy”, able to facilitate direct access to their archbishop. When he launched the same small-group scheme in the parishes as he had in Arundel and Brighton, it was the clergy he first had to win over. He boldly booked the Butlins holiday camp in Bognor Regis for a weekend, and in November 2002 assembled all the clergy there. They had never been away together like this before. Besides the contributions of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and the Jesuit John McDade, he always maintained that it was the breakfasts that did it. After full plates of bacon and eggs served by the Butlins Redcoats, a universally warm and generous mood was assured.
This time the programme had a biblical title, “At Your Word, Lord”. The opening ceremony was at Wembley Arena in September 2003. As the cardinal watched more than 10,000 people march into the venue, he believed that his vision of the family of the Church – the title of his 1984 book – was becoming reality. To this day, groups of laity meet in some Westminster parishes for three sessions a year of Bible reading, prayer and discussion of their faith.
In September 2000, the Appeal Court turned to him for a moral briefing on the tragic situation of conjoined twins known as “Mary” and “Jodie”.
The twins, joined end to end, had been born to Catholic parents from Malta who had turned to health professionals in Britain for medical care. They had only one functioning heart and set of lungs between them. An operation to separate them would allow Jodie to live, but Mary would die. If there were no operation, neither twin would survive, because Mary was dependent on Jodie for pumped blood through a shared artery, which was putting too much strain on her sister.
Cormac took the side of the parents, who were opposed to surgical intervention. He argued that the life of each child was sacred, so it would be unjust knowingly to take the life of one of them. There was no moral obligation to preserve life if that entailed the use of “extraordinary means”. Nevertheless, the operation went ahead, with the foreseen result. Some few years later, while visiting Malta, Cormac met the family. He rejoiced to see Jodie healthy and lively, but remained torn. One life had been saved, but another had been sacrificed.
On the international stage, the cardinal joined with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to issue a joint warning against going to war in Iraq. When hostilities broke out in March 2003, with British forces in support of the Americans, he said explicitly that the assault was “wrong”. In November 2004, he invited senior British Muslim leaders to Archbishop’s House and pledged to offer the assistance of the Catholic community to the Muslim community “in any way that is open to us”. The Catholic and Muslim leaders agreed to stand together against violence in the name of religion and to defend the religious freedoms of each other’s faith anywhere in the world where that liberty was being transgressed.
No one had opposed the war more vehemently than Pope John Paul II. In seeking to avert hostilities, he seemed to throw off the Parkinson’s disease that had afflicted him for so long. But in 2005 his condition worsened sharply. Caught up by the drama in Rome, the world watched. He died on 2 April. He had dominated for 25 years, “as if he were a solitary Atlas holding up the Church and the world”, The Tablet said. Seven million people flocked to Rome for the funeral, while an estimated two billion watched on television.
It is a safe assumption that in the subsequent conclave, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor did not at first vote for Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI. Cormac had stepped into the late Cardinal Hume’s shoes as one of a group of European heavyweight cardinals who met informally every year until 2006 in St Gall, Switzerland, home of the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe, to share their vision of the future Church. The participants included Carlo Maria Martini, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan; Cardinal Danneels from Belgium; and the German cardinals Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper. Collegiality – government by Pope and bishops, not by Pope and Roman Curia – was their watchword, whereas Joseph Ratzinger had been John Paul II’s right-hand theologian during a papacy that saw control of the Church from the centre steadily increase.
At the celebratory cardinals’ supper party after the election, his fine singing voice landed him in some embarrassment. The presiding cardinal called for a song. Cormac struck up with Ad Multos Annos Vivat (“May he live for many years”), confident that all would know it and join in. No one did. He continued bravely to the end, when a general singalong ensued. When Benedict visited Britain in 2010, Cormac proposed a toast on the final day, ensuring that this time he and his fellow bishops would sing Ad Multos with familiarity and fervour.
As Pope, Benedict focused on the secularisation of Europe, the old heartland of Christianity. He feared a “dictatorship of relativism”. In the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales there was a divergence of opinion about where to stand. Some favoured engagement with secular reality, others outright opposition. Cormac was always of the former view. But he had no illusions about the scale of the challenge. Addressing the National Conference of Priests in Leeds in September 2001, he referred with approval to a book review he had been reading. “It does seem,” he said, “that today, especially in England and Wales, Christianity as a background to people’s lives and moral decisions, and to the government and the social life of the country, has almost been vanquished.”
One of his initiatives was to stage public lectures at Westminster Cathedral – in 2005 on “Faith in Europe?” and in 2008 on “Faith and Life in Britain”. The speakers he assembled for the series showed the pulling power of the archbishop of Westminster: for the first, he enlisted Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities; Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland; Timothy Radcliffe, star preacher and former master of the Dominicans; Bob Geldof, musician and charity organiser extraordinary; and Lord Patten, former governor of Hong Kong. For the second, the speakers were Tony Blair, former prime minister; Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC; Archbishop Rowan Williams; William Hague, former leader of the Conservative Party; and Rabbi Julia Neuberger, president of Liberal Judaism. In each series, the cardinal himself gave the concluding address. The cathedral was always packed.
One battle he lost caused him lasting concern. In April 2007 regulations based on the Labour government’s 2006 Equality Act came into force, prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. In their wake, the Catholic children’s societies found themselves threatened with extinction. There were 12 of them and they were universally agreed to be very successful in placing vulnerable children with adoptive parents. But these adopters had to qualify as a father and mother; gay couples were not accepted. That was now counted against the societies as discrimination, forbidden by law, and one after another they had to loosen their links with the Catholic Church or stop adoptions or close their doors.
Alarmed, the cardinal spoke out in a 2007 lecture. There had to be tolerant openness at the heart of British democratic society, he argued. That was part of what free speech was about. Religious convictions based on conscience had to be allowed, and the right of conscientious objection had always previously been upheld by the British state. He later said he regretted he had not appealed the matter at the High Court.
Looking to the future of the archdiocese, the cardinal had published a “green paper” in May 2005 based on responses from the parishes. His own further response followed in a “white paper” in February 2006. Under the title “Communion and mission”, it listed five pastoral priorities: holy living, formation in the faith, small communities, vocations, and structures aiding communion. He placed great importance on the celebration of the liturgy as a supreme function of a diocese under its bishop’s leadership.
For a period in Arundel and Brighton he had known cathedral and diocesan liturgies where the best choral and congregational music had been combined. In Westminster with its famous choir and choir school, the music could tend towards a spiritual concert, with the congregation largely as audience. Cormac confided to associates that he would have liked to introduce a different approach, but felt he did not have long enough.
On May Day 2006 he celebrated the first Mass for migrants at Westminster Cathedral, which was full to capacity, followed by a rally in Trafalgar Square. Priests from London’s many ethnic chaplaincies celebrated with him; there was music from Africa, Poland and Latin America, and prayers and readings in a diversity of migrants’ languages, witnessing to their integration. For the Catholic Church, the cardinal told them, “You are all Londoners … you belong.” In hailing them all as potential citizens, he was giving his weight to a radical cause. He called, gently, for ways of legalising the status of undocumented migrants. The proposal generated a furious reaction from some quarters but became part of the bishops’ migration policy. The migrants’ Mass has become an annual event.
The future of the “Soho Masses” for members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community was another pastoral challenge – one of the “awkward corners” he listed in his memoirs as needing to be negotiated. These Masses had begun in the “safe space” of a convent, then when it closed were transferred to the Anglican church of St Anne’s in Soho. The numbers steadily grew, as did the opposition of a small but vocal minority of Catholic protesters. Cormac was uneasy that the Anglican venue might suggest that the Catholic Church had no place for LGBT people. A solution was easier because Cardinal William Levada, head of the doctrinal congregation in Rome, had previous experience of a similar pastoral challenge in San Francisco. The guiding principle was that the Masses must not be seen as acts of defiance against Catholic doctrine, but as celebrations integrating all concerned into the pastoral life of a Catholic parish.
With this understanding, the Soho Masses were transferred in 2007 to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Warwick Street. Some in Rome kept a wary eye on the British scene. During a visit to the Roman Curia it was suggested to Cormac that he should dismiss one prominent gay Catholic layman who had charge of a flourishing Catholic agency. “Non posso e non lo farò,” he retorted: “I cannot and will not.”
Besides his responsibility for his own diocese, a bishop has a shared care for all the churches. The cardinal’s European outlook was put to good effect within the Council of Episcopal Conferences of Europe as its vice-president from 2001 to 2006. One of his visits abroad, to Sri Lanka to mark the anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, had a down side. Besides inspecting relief and reconstruction work, he was received by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who subsequently sought to suggest that the cardinal supported his repressive policy against the Tamil minority.
His reputation as an open Vatican II bishop led to an invitation from Australia to engage in conversations in 2006. It was a success, and in 2008 he was again in Sydney for World Youth Day. Just before Christmas 2006 he travelled to the Holy Land with an ecumenical delegation to express solidarity with the “living stones”, the Christians who had lived there for two millennia. Accompanying him were Archbishop Rowan Williams; the Free Churches moderator, David Coffey; and Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain. They began in Jerusalem, and then travelled to Bethlehem. Cormac had become interested in the plight of Bethlehem after receiving a visit from the mayor of the town. His description of the people of Bethlehem as “corralled” in his Midnight Mass 2005 homily and his call for the building of bridges, not walls, led the news on the BBC and sparked a protest by the chief rabbi.
The cardinal turned 75 in August 2007. Following the rules, he duly offered his resignation, which was not accepted. That did not stop farewell parties, including one which particularly delighted him, when the Queen and Prince Philip came to lunch at Archbishop’s House. With glee, he kept the identity of the royal visitors secret until the last minute. In 2008 he was in South Africa at the invitation of Cardinal Wilfrid Napier, Archbishop of Durban, to attend the bishops’ plenary. He saw for himself in the Natal hills the devastation wreaked on a society by Aids. In a further show of solidarity with the local Church, whose bishops’ conference had invited him, he went on to Zimbabwe, where the Church was subject to massive intimidation at the hands of a regime that had degraded the entire country.
He stepped down in 2009, the first archbishop of Westminster not to die in office. One parting offer caused him difficulty. He and the prime minister, Gordon Brown, had a warm relationship – probably closer than he’d had with Tony Blair, whom he received into the Catholic Church in December 2007. Now Brown offered him a life peerage. Cormac was strongly attracted, and took soundings. He rehearsed with himself a possible beginning of his maiden speech: “As my predecessor in the House of Lords, Cardinal Reginald Pole, said in 1556 … ” But reservations in Rome and among some of his colleagues eventually made him decide to decline.
He chose to live in retirement in west London in Chiswick – handy for flights to Rome from Heathrow Airport, he said. He needed those, because in October 2009 Pope Benedict appointed him a member of the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, two key dicasteries for episcopal nominations. In 2010 he was among others chosen to undertake a visitation of the Catholic Church in Ireland following the swingeing Ryan and Murphy reports on clerical sexual abuse. The assignment was a mark of Rome’s confidence in him after his own battles in this field. Further marks of Rome’s confidence came in 2011 and 2012 when he visited India and Bangladesh as the Pope’s personal representative.
In 2013 Pope Benedict announced his astonishing decision to resign. Cormac had turned 80 the previous year, and therefore was not eligible to vote in the conclave, but he could take part in the preliminary discussions in Rome, and arguably had never had more influence. He knew which participant he favoured – Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. Both had received their red hat at the same consistory, and they had seats next to each other at the 2005 conclave where Bergoglio had been runner-up.
Now, in 2013, as a seasoned and senior churchman, Cormac knew which would be the most important pre-conclave meetings of his peers, and where they would take place. He made certain that he attended all of them, calling attention to Bergoglio’s qualities. He was particularly effective in influencing Cardinal Francis George, the then Archbishop of Chicago, and the other American cardinals. When Bergoglio emerged from the conclave as Pope Francis, Murphy-O’Connor was seen to weep tears of joy. The new Pope proceeded to embark on a sweeping reform of Catholic attitudes.
The cardinal’s memoirs, entitled An English Spring, include a frank examination of conscience in the context of the Michael Hill case. He detected in himself, he wrote, a tendency to “drift” into “that little space where kindness blurs into weakness”. Faced with difficult decisions, “I can be inclined to turn to something more cheerful and positive”. But that was his style, exemplified by the episcopal motto he chose, from a famous document of Vatican II, Gaudium et spes (“joy and hope”). And contrary to his own judgement on himself, his colleagues testify that he could be “brutal” in driving policies through.
Those who knew him felt he was at peace with himself and his clergy in his final years. He had come through, though along the way the weather had been turbulent at times. Hence the title he chose for those memoirs, taken from a celebrated sermon by John Henry Newman. “The pattern of my life, like that of the Church in recent years,” the cardinal reflected in his introduction to the book, “has been an uncertain time of hopes and joys, of fears and of ‘keen blasts’. It’s been something of an English spring.”
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Bishop of Arundel and Brighton from 1977 to 2000; Archbishop of Westminster from 2000 to 2009. Born, Reading, 24 August 1932; died London, 1 September 2017.