Anna Arco meets a relieved archbishop at the end of a challenging year marked by the success of the papal visit

It’s been a year since Archbishop Bernard Longley moved into Archbishop’s House, Birmingham, but a lot has happened. Appointed to the post at the end of last year after seven years as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Westminster, Archbishop Longley has had the sort of year that would challenge even veteran diocesan bishops.

The room we’re speaking in is a large, but low-ceilinged, friendly and warm, a welcome change from the snowstorm raging outside. Archbishop Longley has lost weight since he moved to Birmingham, but the face behind the round spectacles is genial and remarkably fresh.

Archbishop Longley says he feels grateful and relieved to have reached the end of the year. “Nobody, I suppose, in being ordained or installed as the bishop of a diocese could expect the kind of year which lay ahead of me. It was only beginning to dawn on me as I arrived a year ago that there would be a papal visit. I knew that in the course of the year we would be celebrating the beatification of Blessed John Henry Newman. To find out that the Holy Father would be coming in person and would be celebrating it in this archdiocese was a fantastic thing. It has been a point and a source of unity in the diocese, for our parishes.”

With an ad limina visit to Rome on the cards and a papal visit to follow, Archbishop Longley was faced with more than the usual duties of a first-year archbishop, which include visiting the parishes in his archdiocese (he’s managed to celebrate Mass at 70 of the 220 parishes under his care in the past year). Although he says the year has been a bit of a balancing act, he has somehow also managed to fit in a week-long visit to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s death.

When he started and realised just how much he had on his plate, did he “gulp”? “Yes, I did. I’m normally not looking too far ahead, but with those steps in mind, I decided to take each step as it comes. As you mentioned, the first step was the ad limina visit so it was my first time to meet Pope Benedict as Archbishop of Birmingham. It was the first time I got to meet with him properly and to discuss with him the life of the Church in this diocese. He was very kind. I was touched by his gentle concern for the life of the Church in the diocese. I was also touched by his interest in a whole range of things, especially Catholic education, his support for Catholic teachers and for his personal interest in coming to the diocese for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. He was fascinated in the presence of the University of Oxford in the archdiocese as well.” Archbishop Longley and the Holy Father discussed Oxford again in the Popemobile during the Pope’s September visit.

“I did mention having been in a choir in Oxford. We had a little conversation about music, his own love of music, and he was pleased to know on the day before the beatification there had been a performance of The Dream of Gerontius which was sponsored by the Oratory and the City Council in the town hall in the place where it was originally performed. It was a very poignant moment for everyone who was there and the Holy Father was pleased to hear about it. He asked me if there was a DVD of the performance. I had to say: ‘Not yet, Holy Father’. ”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising the Pope’s visit should feature so strongly in our conversation. Birmingham, after all, hosted the highlight of the Pope’s visit to Britain: the beatification of John Henry Newman. Apart from the beatification, Archbishop Longley says some of his favourite moments came during the first day in Scotland, which set the tone for the rest of the visit. He says: “My guess is that it encouraged the Holy Father so much that it helped him open up to the rest of the visit. In turn, it showed his great joy at being with us. There is something about Scots canniness that enabled that to happen. I was pleased to be a part of the wonderful welcome he received from the people of Edinburgh and Bellahouston Park.”

He says the Holy Father’s speech at Westminster Hall was “remarkable”. With some regret he adds that
he is sad he can’t say that the prayer vigil in Hyde Park was a highlight of the Pope’s visit for him because he had duties in Birmingham that day.

Archbishop Longley talks about hosting Deacon Jack Sullivan, the American who prayed for the intercession of Cardinal Newman and was miraculously cured. Deacon Jack and his wife became part of the household, he says. So many people in Birmingham wanted to be involved with the Pope’s visits that the entire archbishop’s household and the Anglican bishops travelled to the event in cars which had been provided by a group of undertakers (he is careful to emphasise that they weren’t hearses).

Having now spent a year as a diocesan archbishop, how is it different from being an auxiliary?

“As an auxiliary, you a member of a team,” Archbishop Longley says: “You are alert, you’re trying to discern in terms of the government of a diocese in order to be part of the advice. You are part of the decision-making but you are not the ultimate decision-maker.

“As the archbishop or the bishop of a diocese you soon adjust and I found that this year has called for adjustment within me, and to meet that expectation that I will be able to make those decisions about important areas in the Church’s life within the diocese, which the Lord, I believe, has given me the grace to meet. That has been a change in terms of my own sense of trust and of prayer. I am bringing things to Our Lord in prayer in a way which was different from the past as an auxiliary.

“I think also trying to understand the diocese,.. I did try to understand it as an auxiliary in Westminster, but now I am in the process of getting to know the Archdiocese of Birmingham for a different purpose. That it’s to be one who encourages and gives leadership to our clergy and to be the person in the archdiocese who shows the concern for its liturgical life, life of worship and prayer, the pastoral life, the Church’s social teaching is actually effected in the life of the parishes and of course the sacramental life of people.”

What does he see as the greatest challenges facing him?

From a personal point of view, Archbishop Longley says, he needs to learn to match his expectations to his abilities, “bridging the gap between what I can physically do and what I desire to do as archbishop”.

“When I go to a parish, for example, I want to have time to meet the people afterwards and to have sufficient time that people deserve to meet with them. But I think what I must learn is patience, because, please God, so long as life and health continue well, I have another 20 years of service as a bishop to look forward to.”

He says there is another, deeper ecclesial challenge which needs addressing, which is reaching out and “once again touching the lives of people who have been the Catholic community”.

“There are occasionally points of contact with families who are coming to their grandparents funeral, or cousins and uncles coming to a Confirmation where part of the family is still connected through parish through school, through the children but are not fully engaged in the life of the parish, maybe not coming frequently to Mass.”

He suggests that he might meet the challenge by “being aware on those occasions as a bishop confirming, as a priest performing a funeral or a sacramental moment, of those who are more at the edge of the Catholic family and trying to use those occasions through preaching, through the kind of welcome they receive, within the liturgy itself”.

He also argues that “careful presentation of the Church’s liturgy in itself has the capacity through Christ’s presence to open people’s eyes and ears to his word to his message” and adds: “We’re not afraid of emphasising what is distinctive about what we are as Catholics and celebrating that.”