The warmth of Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s 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.
At one point during his installation in March 2000 as the tenth Archbishop of Westminster, 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.
He was born in 1932 to Irish parents, both from Co. Cork, who had emigrated to England and settled in Reading. They had five sons, of whom Cormac was the youngest, and then a daughter. Three of his uncles were priests, and three of his cousins. Two of his brothers, and then Cormac himself, followed the same path.
He set out in 1950, aged 18, for the English College in Rome. He grew to love Rome, and learned the language, which he spoke with aplomb, if not always with precision. Standing well over six foot, 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 learnt to play at a very early age.
He was ordained priest in October 1956. Back in Portsmouth, he served as a curate, first for five years in the city’s North End, and then from 1962 for three years at the larger and more prosperous parish of Fareham. Inspired by Yves Congar’s 'Lay People in the Church', he established small-group meetings of parishioners in their own homes for Bible reading, prayer, and shared experience of faith and life. It became his settled conviction that this was the way to produce committed Christian believers.
In 1966 a new bishop, Derek Worlock, previously secretary to three Archbishops of Westminster, took over at Portsmouth. He enlisted Cormac as his private secretary. The young priest also came to the notice of Cardinal John Carmel Heenan, the then Archbishop of Westminster, who saw in him a reliable pair of hands. No doubt Cardinal Heenan was influential in picking out Murphy-O’Connor to return to the English College in Rome in 1971 as rector.
It was a demanding assignment. An unruly body of seminarians was reacting to the Vatican II reforms in very different ways. With patience and wily diplomacy, he succeeded in stabilising the seminary and restoring the bishops’ confidence in it.
In November 1977 he was called back early from Rome to take charge of Arundel and Brighton. He 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. One of his new ideas, building on his experience in Portsmouth, was to invigorate the diocese by introducing a system of small parish groups. At one stage, there were thousands meeting regularly in this way across the diocese.
In 1982 he became co-chair with the Anglican Bishop Mark Santer of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). 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 lifetimes. But when in 1992 the synod of the Church of England voted for the ordination of women, 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”.
He was planning a diocesan synod for 2002 to work out a blueprint for the future and intended then to offer his resignation so that he could retire. 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, and Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was the chosen successor. He now had to recreate 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. He had a much more numerous clergy to lead, and of a different complexion, for in Westminster they are notoriously independent – sometimes fiercely so.
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 effect. It became clear that in the Church paedophilia was an institutionalised feature. Offending priests would simply be moved to another parish, where they would transgress again. The secular authorities would not be informed. And always for the church authorities the centre of concern was the abusers, not the child or teenage victims, who were not believed.
Murphy-O’Connor always denied that Hill was moved between parishes because of a series of complaints of abuse against him. He sent him for counselling. 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. Murphy-O’Connor 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 Murphy-O’Connor allowed him a limited ministry as an industrial 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.
Murphy-O’Connor faced the scandal down. What saved him was the establishment in 2000 of a commission under Lord Nolan, himself a Catholic, the highly respected retired judge who had recently chaired an enquiry into standards in public life. Michael Nolan quickly assembled an independent expert nine-person group. They made 83 recommendations. 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. 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.
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. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor decided to appoint new auxiliary bishops whose responsibilities would be pastoral, rather than geographical. He moulded them into a team, just as he did the Bishops’ Conference. In the parishes, he launched the same small-group scheme as he had in Arundel and Brighton. The opening ceremony was at Wembley Stadium in September 2003. As the Cardinal watched more than 10,000 people march onto the hallowed turf, 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.
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”.
Pope John Paul II died on 2 April 2005. Seven million people flocked into Rome for the funeral. 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. For Cormac had stepped into the late Cardinal Hume’s shoes as one of a group of European heavyweight cardinals who met informally every year till 2006 in St Gall, Switzerland, to share their vision of the future Church. 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 which saw control of the Church from the centre steadily increase.
As Pope, Benedict’s focus was on the secularisation of Europe, traditional 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.
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. The Catholic children’s societies 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.
The Cardinal turned 75 in August 2007. Following the rules, he duly offered his resignation, which was not accepted. He eventually 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 had had with Brown’s predecessor, Tony Blair, whom he received into the Catholic Church in December 2007. Now Brown offered him a life peerage. Cormac was attracted, and took soundings. But reservations in Rome and among his colleagues eventually made him decide to decline.
He chose to live in retirement in Chiswick, west London – handy for flights to Rome from Heathrow airport, he said. He needed those, since 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 chosen among others to undertake a visitation of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the wake of the swingeing Ryan and Murphy reports on clerical sexual abuse.
In 2013 Pope Benedict announced his astonishing decision to resign. Cormac had turned 80 the year before, and therefore was not eligible to vote in the conclave, but he could take part in the preliminary discussions in Rome, and arguably never had more influence than now. He knew which participant he thought should be elected - the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. 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. Bergoglio emerged from the conclave as Pope Francis, and proceeded to embark on a sweeping reform of Catholic attitudes.
Those who knew him felt he was at peace with himself and his clergy in his final years. He had come through, though the weather along the way 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 1 September 2017
There will be a longer version of this obituary in a special edition of The Tablet on 9 September.