Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor took on leadership of the English Church amid political and ecclesiastical turmoil

There was an unnerving moment during Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s installation at Westminster Cathedral in March 2000. The new spiritual leader of Catholics in England and Wales stumbled on the marble altar steps, and it looked as if his 6ft 4in frame would come crashing to the ground. But at the last second he caught himself and carried on. This was, with hindsight, a fitting metaphor for his choppy years as Archbishop of Westminster.

Murphy-O’Connor’s appointment to England’s premier see was a surprise. He had been preparing for retirement, not national leadership, when he received the nuncio’s call. Yet he was a shrewd choice, because he embodied the unique character of English Catholicism. In him, the Church’s two historic wings – Irish immigrants and the aristocracy – met and were reconciled.

He bore not just one but two Irish names thanks to his grandfather, who joined his surname with his half-brother’s when they went into the wine trade. Despite being born in Reading, Murphy-O’Connor spoke with an Irish lilt and had the easy charm associated with his ancestral land. Yet Clifford Longley once described him as “every inch a dog-walking, golfing, rugger- and piano-playing English country gentleman”. Though firmly middle class (his father was a doctor from County Cork), he moved comfortably in upper-class circles. He became a friend of the Duke of Norfolk during his more than two decades as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, and England’s senior Catholic layman is said to have helped him to Westminster.

Cardinal Basil Hume, the popular 9th Archbishop of Westminster, was perhaps the first to see Murphy-O’Connor’s full potential. In 1999, on his deathbed, he told him: “Cormac, you will have to take over this job.” Under Hume, the English Catholic Church had grown in confidence, if not in overall numbers. To be a Catholic was no longer to be a suspicious outsider. His unpretentious Benedictine spirituality resonated with the English and he welcomed an influx of high-profile converts, as well as hundreds of ex-Anglican clergy. Hume’s establishment project – his desire for Catholics to find a place at the heart of British affairs – had advanced further than he could have hoped.

After Hume’s passing, Murphy-O’Connor took up the project enthusiastically. Following the Queen Mother’s death in 2002, he became the first cardinal for centuries to read a scriptural passage at an English royal funeral. Later that year, at Sandringham, he was the first Catholic cleric since 1688 to preach a sermon to the reigning monarch. He considered taking a seat in the House of Lords and even prepared the opening of his first speech (“As my predecessor, Cardinal Pole, was saying …”). But he declined the offer after Rome vetoed it. He initially criticised the Act of Settlement, the law barring Catholics from inheriting the throne. But after a backlash he dropped the matter, saying that the Act would be quietly discarded one day.

Like most English bishops, Murphy-O’Connor broadly welcomed the ascendancy of New Labour in 1997, after almost two decades of Tory rule. He thought that the Church could help the government, led by the Catholic-friendly Tony Blair, to repair Britain’s frayed social fabric.

It was not to be. In 2006 Alan Johnson, then education secretary, tried to impose a quota of non-Catholic pupils on new Catholic schools. An outcry, led by bishops, resulted in what one observer called the “fastest U-turn in British political history”. The following year, with Cabinet ministers still smarting, Murphy-O’Connor asked for an exemption from gay adoption laws. Blair’s power had by now melted away and he was unable to find a compromise. The Church was forced to close or cut ties with its adoption agencies. This brute display of secularist might angered the cardinal. In one of our final email exchanges, he said that he still felt strongly about the episode 10 years later.

Murphy-O’Connor had taken the Hume project as far as it could go. It was true that the Establishment was no longer fiercely Anglican, but it had been invaded by an aggressive secularism no less hostile to the Catholic Church. Full admission required the abandonment of Catholic principles. Murphy-O’Connor had come to believe that it was better to remain at the margins. “There is still a sense that being Catholic is being different,” he told me in 2012. “You’re not part of the Establishment and most Catholics wouldn’t want to be.”

Murphy-O’Connor longed to unify England’s Christians. Tears had filled his eyes when Dr Robert Runcie welcomed Pope John Paul II to Canterbury Cathedral in 1982. He was not alone in thinking that this symbolic moment would be followed by the recognition of Anglican orders, leading to intercommunion between Catholics and Anglicans. As co-chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), he saw one obstacle after another topple – until the Church of England voted to ordain women priests in 1992.

His soaring hopes then gave way to a good-natured realism. Rome and Canterbury wouldn’t become one in his lifetime, but he insisted that ecumenism was a “road with no exits” (an unsettling image, but one that got across the sense of permanence). Rarefied theological dialogue was giving way to an “ecumenism of life”, in which the faithful worked side by side as if they were already united.

His greatest trial came a few months after his installation at Westminster, when the media discovered that he had mishandled an abuse case in Arundel and Brighton. In 1985, he had appointed Fr Michael Hill as a chaplain to Gatwick Airport, despite reports that the priest was a danger to children. Hill had wept, got down on his knees and begged Murphy-O’Connor to give him a new post. Viewing himself as a spiritual father and Hill as a wayward son, he gave in, characteristically letting his heart overrule his head. At Gatwick, Hill abused a boy with learning difficulties and was convicted of nine counts of indecent assault in 1997. Murphy-O’Connor came under pressure to resign the See of Westminster, but never seriously considered it.

While others might have felt compelled to step aside, he accepted full responsibility for his error and tried to ensure that bishops would never again reassign abusers. He asked Lord Nolan, an authority on probity in public life, to review the Church’s child protection procedures. Nolan urged the Church in England and Wales to adopt some of the most stringent measures in the Catholic world. Despite complaints from clergy, who felt the new rules treated them as guilty until proven innocent, the bishops adopted the reforms. This marked a breakthrough for Murphy-O’Connor, who otherwise struggled to impose consensus on the bishops’ conference. But it put new strain on his relationships with priests.

Murphy-O’Connor’s openness to married clergy and his belief that condoms were sometimes licit in the fight against Aids placed him at the liberal end of the global Catholic spectrum. While he had great reverence for John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he felt they had stifled some of Vatican II’s revolutionary insights. He took Cardinal Hume’s place in the St Gallen group, named after the Swiss city where like-minded cardinals such as the Italian Cardinal Martini and the Belgian Cardinal Danneels had met since 1996. Members discussed how a new kind of pope might emerge to lead the Church in a more progressive direction.

Murphy-O’Connor’s ecclesiastical career flourished even though he was at odds with Rome’s prevailing conservatism. That was because of his Romanitas: his intuitive ability to navigate Vatican corridors, developed during his years as a student in Rome and then as rector of the English College. Although he often froze in front of the cameras, he was fluent and funny in ecclesiastical settings. With his imposing height, firm handshake and jovial storytelling, he resembled one of those formidable Irish-American bishops who flourished in the last century. Like them, he also had a calculating side just visible beneath the bonhomie.

Only occasionally did his instincts fail him: at a dinner with cardinals after Benedict XVI’s election he began what he hoped would be a rousing chorus of Ad Multos Annos. “I thought everyone knew it and they’d all join in,” he recalled, “but nobody did. And so I carried on right until the end, just me, in front of Pope Benedict, and all these cardinals.”

He received the ultimate sign of Vatican approval in 2001, when John Paul II gave him the red hat. Among the others elevated that day was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. From then on, they were seated together at Vatican events and built a rapport.

Murphy-O’Connor said that his heart leapt when his friend emerged on the balcony of St Peter’s as Pope Francis in 2013. Two days later, in the Hall of Benedictions, Francis smiled and told him: “It’s your fault! What have you done to me?” As he was over 80, Murphy-O’Connor hadn’t voted in the conclave, but he had helped to create the buzz around his Argentine colleague.

He welcomed the austere Jesuit’s efforts to change the culture of the Catholic Church. With a direct line to the papacy, he arguably enjoyed more influence in his retirement than he had ever had at Westminster.

I remember coming away from an interview with Murphy-O’Connor a few years ago with the impression that he envied those mystics who could spend hours in contemplation away from the world’s cares. He had taken a different path: dogged service of the institutional Church. Whether as a curate in Portsmouth or as Archbishop of Westminster, he had simply done what he had been asked to do as conscientiously as possible.

At his eventful installation Mass in Westminster Cathedral, he recalled that he had once found a stone commemorating a Celtic saint in the Outer Hebrides. “Pilgrim Cormac,” it said, “went beyond what was deemed possible.” That would be a fitting epitaph for Murphy-O’Connor himself.

Luke Coppen is editor of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the September 8 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here