Unturbulent Priest

The memoirs of Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor

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Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor: Firmly in Pope Francis’s camp (photo: Mazur)

Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was consecrated 10th Archbishop of Westminster in February 2000, succeeding Cardinal Basil Hume, the holy Benedictine monk who had returned Catholicism to somewhere near the centre of English life. Although Cormac had been Bishop of Arundel and Brighton for 23 years, he was little known to most of the laity.

It is said that the Duke of Norfolk, who was a retired general and “Britain’s leading Catholic layman”, had ordered the Papal Nuncio to choose Cormac. This is an over-simplification, but Cormac and Miles Norfolk had been friends and Arundel neighbours for many years.

My first encounter with the new Archbishop was perplexing. Four months into his reign, he gave away the prizes at Westminster Cathedral Choir School, where my eldest son was a chorister. WCCS parents include a high proportion of diplomats, captains of industry and politicians. The new Archbishop’s address was rambling, inconsequential, almost a music hall parody of a folksy Irish priest. Afterwards a fellow parent, the American director of a major British company, remarked that, although not himself a Catholic, he had been expecting something more enlightening from “your new guy”. So had I.

The Murphy-O’Connor family background was profoundly Irish, not rich but “with the smell of money”. The men became doctors or priests, with the exception of one in each generation who ran a wine merchant at Cork, “Dispensers of Wine and Spirits to the Clergy and Gentry of Southern Ireland”. One forebear became the first Archbishop of Hobart in Tasmania, and lived to 96. Many of the women became nuns.

Cormac’s father George was a doctor who, in 1918, bought a substantial practice at Reading. Here he and his wife, also from a well-to-do Cork family, raised a large family, sporty, musical and pious. Cormac and his brothers played rugby and were educated by the Christian Brothers at Bath, whence they returned with coarse manners that shocked their mother (she would have preferred to send them to the Jesuits at Beaumont). The family regarded themselves as English, though the connection with Ireland remained strong, and Cormac retains to this day a soft Irish accent.

Three of the boys became priests and one a British Army officer. Aged 18, Cormac went to the Venerable English College in Rome, where he developed a new Roman layer to his personality. Although bright, he says he was not in the same league as his cousin Jerome, a Dominican friar and a great New Testament scholar.

Ordained in 1956, he began his ministry as a curate in working-class parishes in and around Portsmouth. Concerned by his parishioners’ ignorance of the fundamentals of the faith, he instituted small prayer and discussion groups, an approach he would build on in later years.

Cormac’s rise to eminence began in 1966 when he was appointed secretary to the dynamic Bishop of Portsmouth Derek Worlock, a terrific operator from whom he learned much. This was during the ferment that followed the Second Vatican Council, theologically Cormac’s formative experience. In 1971 he went back to Rome as rector of the Venerable English College, where he would have encountered many Vatican power-brokers. That led seamlessly to the see of Arundel and Brighton; here Cormac was clearly very happy, waited on by three nuns in an agreeable house at Storrington, co-chairing the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission and supervising 140 clergy across Surrey and Sussex.

One of those was Father Michael Hill, whom Cormac had sent away for treatment following complaints of child abuse. After failing to complete the course, Hill begged to be allowed to return to his vocation. Cormac appointed him chaplain at Gatwick airport where, he thought charitably, he could do no harm. That, of course, was a bad mistake, and Hill was jailed in 1997 and again in 2002 for further pederastic offences.

This came home to Cormac when the BBC broke the story shortly after his translation to Westminster. He considered resigning, but, to his credit, dealt with the problem head-on. The result was the Nolan Commission and the current rigorous system for safeguarding children in the British Catholic church. The Nolan approach has been imitated by churches around the world, although the Vatican remains institutionally woolly on the subject.

This episode, which is likely to be all that the secular world remembers of his time at Westminster, illustrates Cormac’s strengths: steadiness under fire and a sure touch with the establishment. It did not prevent him receiving his cardinal’s hat in February 2001.

An English Spring is a quiet read, and the chapter on the Murphy-O’Connor family is the best. Nevertheless Cormac gently conveys the essence of his approach. He is a Vatican II man, interested in ecumenism and re-evangelising a society that has largely lost touch with organised religion. Where Basil Hume believed that everything began with the sacraments, “My experience has been that you’ve got to hear the Gospel first, and have some experience of what the Christian life looks and tastes like.” He approves of the Alpha Course.

That outlook brings him firmly into Pope Francis’s camp, though he professes to admire John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Cormac and Cardinal Bergoglio hit it off when they were red-hatted in 2001, and were part of a group of like-minded cardinals he dubbed La Squadra (the Team). Although he betrays no secrets, there is a fascinating account of the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict. At 81 Cormac was too old for the next election, but he dined with Bergoglio the night before it began. After the Argentine emerged as Pope Francis I, he greeted Cormac with the words: “Tuo e culpevole!” (You’re to blame.)

Many English Catholics feel that Cormac, perhaps because he is at ease with the powerful, failed to lead from the front on issues that matter to them: secularisation, marriage, abortion and media hostility. This is not entirely fair: mostly he was not listened to by government or the media, even though he received Tony Blair into the Catholic Church shortly after he left office.

Ironically, it has taken the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East to bring Christianity back into the national discourse. And it has been the tireless work of lay agencies such as Aid to the Church in Need, rather than the faint exhortations of the bishops, that has proved most effective. In a post-Vatican II Church, that may be the way ahead — and one that Cormac himself might approve.