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Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor: ‘I thought of being called Benedict if elected pope’

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor receives his biretta from Blessed Pope John Paul II in 2001 (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is the first man to survive being Archbishop of Westminster. Unlike his predecessors, who died in office, he walked out of Archbishop’s House, aged 76, to begin a life of retirement.

I met him a few weeks ago, on a rain-lashed day, at his spacious and surprisingly modern home in Chiswick, west London. He spoke candidly for an hour in his living room and then invited me to his dining table for fish pie, followed by strawberries. Away from the faded grandeur of Archbishop’s House and the anxieties of office, his personal qualities shone out: his kindness, his hospitality, his ready humour and humility.

Today is his 80th birthday. This is a turning point for the Church in England and Wales, which no longer has a voting cardinal, and another major event in the life of a faithful servant who, as he says below, never imagined he would one day be a Prince of the Church. On behalf of our readers, I wish him a very happy birthday.

– Luke Coppen

I remember you once said you felt no one had written a history of the Catholic Church in England in the modern era that told the story from the inside, as it really happened. What did you mean by that?

Overall, Catholic history since the Reformation is very clear. The Penal Times lasted for about 250 years until the restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850. The aim of the Catholic Church then could be divided into two. First, there was the conversion of England, which was a kind of dream. The other thing was: keep the faith. Catholics were mostly poor immigrants, a lot of them from Ireland and Italy. So we built our schools and our churches, and were on the periphery of society. We weren’t part of the establishment in any way.

Nowadays you’d be urging Catholics to be involved in public life. My father was asked in Reading to become a JP, but he didn’t. He felt his duty was to the Church and to the family, which he fulfilled very devoutly and fully.

So it was a Church within the nation but rather separate. We were proud to be Catholics and we were linked to the Pope and the worldwide Catholic Church. And, I suppose, the Church prospered numerically. The education was clear. Most people went to a Catholic school and learnt the Catechism. Even if they didn’t practise the faith there was a sort of folk religion of Catholicism. In Reading, where I lived, there were great crowds at Mass, but a lot of them just came to meet together on a Sunday.

So when I said someone should write a history of the Catholic Church I was thinking both of that but particularly of what happened since the Council. The aim was not just to keep the faith. The conversion of England had to be reinterpreted in the light of ecumenism. The faith had to be lived out in the midst of a society that we were very much a part of – in the world but not of the world.

So you have the insights of the Second Vatican Council, plus an ever-growing secularism. And that mission of the Church, which will last to the end of time: how does one interpret that? The Pope talks now about a new evangelisation. How are we going to live that in our time? Has history helped over the last 50 years?

Were you criticising a reading of recent Church history that is too politicised, seeing everything as Right versus Left?

The key point is not any of that at all. It’s faith in Jesus Christ: baptism, Eucharist, Scripture, the deposit of faith which was given to us and is not going to change. Living that out in the midst of the world is what the new evangelisation is about. It’s not new in the sense that there’s a new Gospel. It’s new in the sense that there’s a new world out there, new concepts to be combatted. I think the challenge to the Catholic Church is very great in this country. Elsewhere, too, of course.

Do you agree with the widely held view that the story of the past 50 years is of Catholics becoming part of mainstream British life?

Yes and no. Yes, it’s true that Catholics entered into public life. Why? Because of the 1944 Education Act. Before that lots of Catholics didn’t get a proper secondary education. But now many more Catholics went to university. A new generation came out that was not content to be on the periphery any more. They felt they had a right to be part of society.

But I don’t think we ever became established. There is still a sense that being Catholic is being different. You’re not part of the Establishment and most Catholics wouldn’t want to be. People often ask me: “Do you think the Church of England should be disestablished?” I say: “I think it will be. But it’s not for us to ask for it.” They must decide when they think it’s better, for the sake of the Gospel, to be disestablished.

So you support disestablishment?

As I say, I think it will happen and I think it might be of benefit to Anglicans if it did at some point. They obviously think that at the moment it’s an advantage to them, and I respect that. But I think it will change with time.

What led you to become a pioneer in ecumenism, particularly with regard to relations with Anglicans?

Two things. I got quite friendly with one or two Anglican clergy when I was in my first parish in Portsmouth and saw the good that they did. And when I became secretary to Bishop Worlock I read with great delight the [Vatican II] document on unity, Unitatis Redintegratio, which said: “There is no unity worthy of the name without interior conversion, newness of attitudes and unstinting love.” In other words, we had to change. When I was brought up we looked at Anglicans and other Christians with suspicion. They were beyond the pale. But now we were told: no, they’re our brothers and sisters in Christ, even if we’re not fully united. Now, that demands a new attitude.

As rector of the English College, I brought Anglican students for a term. I hosted the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Coggan, when he went to see the Pope. So by the time I became a bishop I was very disposed towards cooperating as much as I could with Anglicans, particularly in Arundel and Brighton, which was my diocese.

Then we had the great visit of Pope John Paul in 1982. It was very moving to see him in Canterbury Cathedral. Tears came to my eyes when I watched it on television. I was then appointed to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), so I had to spend a lot of time looking at the issues.

When you watched John Paul II in Canterbury Cathedral did you think that full unity was possible?

I thought that at least we could have a recognition of Anglican orders. Even if there wouldn’t be absolutely full unity we could recognise their orders. Therefore, they would be able to receive Communion from us and we from them. That was my hope when I started with ARCIC.

Later, women priests would pose a very serious obstacle, because it’s not something you could change, from their point of view. Also, it brought into focus the key difficulty. We might believe the same about the Eucharist and about ministry, but where was the authority? There were certainly things they said to us that we had to take on board: how is authority shared in the Church? But we asked: “Where is the focus of your authority?” For us, it’s the Pope and the bishops. For them, it’s much more dispersed. As a result, they find it more difficult to have an authoritative church.

You were co-chairman of ARCIC for almost two decades. Do you think the two communions actually drifted further apart in that time?

Again, I would say yes and no. It’s true that we drifted further apart, not just because of the ordination of women, but because of the difficulties they were increasingly having with the exercise of authority.
It was making full doctrinal unity more problematic. Even if they hadn’t ordained women we would have had a lot of difficulties.

Anglicans believe that the source of our faith is Scripture, tradition and reason. We say that it is Scripture, tradition and teaching authority. It’s that third source that is a crucial difference. The Church of England always tried to be Catholic and Protestant. But it was always very much tied to the state. That’s why it has its challenges now with the wider Anglican Communion. In England it is – or was – the religion of the nation. Therefore they were close to the Government and if the Government decreed something they were more inclined to follow “reason”. It’s “reasonable” to agree to contraception. It’s “reasonable” to allow embryonic exploitation. That makes it more difficult for them to agree on the doctrinal and moral issues, which are very divisive.

On the other hand, faced with a very secular society we have moved closer together. When I was Archbishop of Westminster we held meetings of their bishops and our bishops twice. You could see that it helped us to be with them and them to be with us in confronting issues which are common to both of us.

The relationship between Benedict XVI and Dr Rowan Williams seems remarkably warm.

Very warm. Rowan Williams is very spiritual, very learned and, in a way, very Catholic in his views.

Have those qualities helped during controversies like the creation of the ordinariate?

Certainly. If there are points of tension it’s good that we are able to talk, like when so many Anglicans became Catholics in 1994 after the ordination of women. Bishop [David] Konstant and I were sent over to talk to a group of Anglican bishops about issues that might have been sensitive. That was very good.

Cardinal Basil Hume thought that because there were a lot of High Church Anglicans who wanted to be received in London that that was the same all over the country. Well, it wasn’t really. In the end over 300 Anglican clergy entered full communion with the Catholic Church.

Four of us – Cardinal Hume, Bishop [Alan] Clark, Bishop [Vincent] Nichols and myself ­– went to Rome and there were four on Rome’s side: Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Cassidy, Archbishop Dupré and Archbishop Bertone. We discussed the whole situation, including what we were going to do about the married men.

You studied at the English College in the 1950s. Do you think the English influence in Rome was stronger then than now?

Well, it was just a different time. It was the last years of Pope Pius XII. When I was there, from 1950 to 1957, there were about 80 students from all over the country. We were quite a strong presence in Rome, but there were thousands of other clergy.

The Queen came to visit the Pope when she was a princess. It must have been 1951. She came with Prince Philip. And we went to the Vatican. We were told we weren’t to cheer. So there we were in our cassocks. She looked absolutely lovely and when she came out after the audience we said: “Blow that!” So we gave her a great cheer. I once talked to her about it and she said: “Oh, I remember it so well. I was quite nervous.” The English presence in Rome is still important. The Beda is doing well. The English College is too. It’s better than it was in terms of numbers. In the ecclesiastical sphere Britain is quite important. Why? Because of language, because of history, because of its relationship to the large English-speaking world – Australia, North America, Africa and India. Even though the Catholic Church isn’t huge here, at the same time the Church in England, Scotland and Wales is regarded as having great significance. We punch above our weight now. Less so in the 1950s somehow.

You became personal secretary to Derek Worlock in 1966. He was then the Bishop of Portsmouth. What was he like?

He was an extraordinary man. He came from a convert family. His father was a Conservative agent in Winchester. Derek was determined to be a priest. His father was disappointed that he didn’t join the Army during the War. He was at seminary then. He was very, very talented, an extraordinary organiser.

Soon after his ordination Cardinal Griffin asked him to be his secretary. He was secretary to successive archbishops of Westminster for 18 years: to Cardinal Griffin, to Cardinal Godfrey and for the first year or so to Cardinal Heenan. After a while Cardinal Griffin became very ill and Derek had to do a lot of the work.

By the time Godfrey got there he was also leaving a lot to Mgr Worlock. Derek worked all hours. Even at night he would think about what he was going to be doing the next day.

How did he shape the Church?

Derek arranged things. The National Pastoral Congress in 1980: no one could have put that on apart from Bishop Worlock. Rome were not very happy about it. They don’t like these things.

Then when the British Council of Churches stopped he and the then Archbishop of York, John Habgood, organised all the new ecumenical instruments. Then he gave a great example in the way he cooperated with Bishop David Sheppard in Liverpool.

Although he was disappointed not to have become Archbishop of Westminster – there was no doubt about that – in a way he was better being a big fish in the smaller pond of Liverpool than a smaller fish in the big pool of Westminster. Cardinal Hume, of course, was a great blessing for the Church.

Derek was very comfortable with the structures of the Church because he had made them. There are pluses and minuses to that. At the time he was organising the instruments for unity – Churches Together in England, the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland – I said it would be much better to start small and build, rather than have all this. I think it would still have been better to have kept the old British Council of Churches.

Do you think the Church became over-bureaucratised?

I think the ecumenical instruments weren’t very effective. And they’re still not. I thought the British Council of Churches should have been the general link with Government and so on. And then the rest should have been done at diocesan level. I’m not a great fan of the ecumenical instruments. Ecumenism really happens at the parish and diocesan level.

Did the bureaucracy of the bishops’ conference become too large?

No, I think they did – and do – good work. Everything develops as you go along. The structures that we have help the bishops to play their part at the national level.

A bishop has got to be a bishop. You can be so wound up with the things to do that you forget you are there to give a witness to the Gospel. Cardinal Hume was wise not to speak too much.

Where were you when you found out you were going to be his successor?

Well, it was very awkward. I was down in Arundel and Brighton and I got a phone call on a Sunday night from [the then Mgr] Kieran Conry, who was the man in charge of the media. This was about 11 o’clock. He said: “You never told me!” I said: “What are you talking about?” He said: “There’s a headline in the Sunday Times saying that you are going to be appointed Archbishop of Westminster.” I said: “Well, I haven’t been.” And he said: “Come on! You must tell me.” So I said: “Well, it’s true. I haven’t heard a thing. You can tell them I haven’t been appointed.”

I went to bed that night thinking: “What’s happening?” I then got a phone call from the nuncio asking me to go to see him. He said something, in rather bad English, about the elephant being out of the bottle. He told me I’d been appointed. And then it wasn’t announced for another 10 days. So I came back to A and B and had a lot to think about.

Did you say yes immediately?

I did. I’d had time to think about it. In fact, I had asked one or two priests whom I trusted, elder statesmen, what they thought I should say if I was asked. But at 67 I thought my age ruled me out. Basil Hume had been only 53. There were a few archbishops appointed at my age, but not many.

Did you see the hand of providence immediately in your appointment or did you have to wait until you retired to see why you were chosen?

I always see the hand of providence. The good Lord has his ways. Was I scared or alarmed? No, I wasn’t. I was apprehensive. But I didn’t go into a decline. I thought I could do the job. Everything started off fine for a few months, and then catastrophe: the Michael Hill case, which was very difficult.

Had you seen that coming?

No. I just woke up one morning and heard it on the radio.

It was interesting that the Michael Hill case re-emerged in 2000, because The Catholic Herald first reported on it in 1997.

And I had written a reply to it, saying I would have handled it differently now. I made serious mistakes in dealing with Michael Hill, but I think that judgments made in the 1980s would be different from the perceptions of the year 2000.

The story of Michael Hill is a big one. I sent him away when I found out that allegations had been made against him. But then when he begged me on his knees a year later to find something for him, I looked up the recommendations.

The recommendation was that he shouldn’t be sent back to a parish but he could go to a place where there weren’t any children. Unfortunately for me, Gatwick was vacant. I think that most of the mistakes that bishops have made have been through being too kind.

Towards priests?

Yes, the priest is meant to be your brother. Clearly, it was a bad mistake and I should have taken counsel. I should have handed him over to the police. But you are talking about the early 1980s. No bishop would have handed over a priest to the police in those days. That didn’t occur until 1994. After that, the bishops did begin to report priests to the police if serious allegations of abuse had been made to them.

After the story emerged again there was a lot of pressure on you.

Yes, there was. On that first day I gave an interview – people said I shouldn’t have done – to News at One. They asked if I would resign. Obviously, if all the other bishops had said I should resign I would have thought about it. But I never did.

It was relentless over the summer. Then I was very fortunate. Talk about providence. Lord Nolan rang me and asked if there was anything he could do to help. I thought about it, rang him back and said: “Yes, this is what I think I’d like to do.”

So he came in and saw me and we organised the Nolan Commission. I persuaded the bishops that this was the right thing to do and then asked if he could have the report out in six months. He came and addressed the bishops. And the bishops, God bless them, all adopted the recommendations. It was going to cost a lot of money, a lot of trouble and take years to fully implement.

So in some ways my mistake was what they call a felix culpa. It was a “happy fault” because I’m not sure I would have asked for Nolan. What we do in England is regarded now in Rome as the best safeguarding anywhere.

So the idea for Nolan came to you during that crisis?

Yes. We had already agreed to do reporting. It wasn’t as if we were completely off the back foot. But I realised there had to be something public. An independent commission: that was the key. Nolan had such a good reputation in Parliament. So I was fairly fortunate that he was there.

It was very difficult for bishops. They had to go through all the files, haul priests out of the parishes and say: “You’ve got to go away.” It was very, very difficult. It was a very dark time and for the first two or three years it did make my position very difficult in terms of the other things I wanted to do.

Was it the most difficult period of your life?

It was certainly the most difficult period as a bishop. You can’t make any excuses because child abuse is such a terrible thing. The damage that is done to children is absolutely awful. We are on a learning curve. Bishops thought – at least I did – that it was a one-off offence. We didn’t know about the addictive nature of paedophilia.

It wasn’t just that I suffered. My family, the whole Church in England and Wales, suffered really because of the shame of it all. That was hard.

There had been a lot of optimism towards the end of Cardinal Hume’s reign. It really seemed to dent that new-found confidence quite a bit.

It was a real dent. One has to live through these things. In life trials come in ways you don’t expect. I never expected this one.

What was your greatest satisfaction at Westminster?

It was [the renewal programme] At Your Word, Lord. I was convinced, and I had been ever since I was a curate, that small communities were absolutely crucial. You can’t be a Catholic today unless you belong to some kind of group, some kind of cell. All right, you could say the cell is family, then the parish and the diocese. But beyond that the cell is fellow Catholics who you meet with, read the Gospel with.

Renewal in the Church always comes about through small cells of men and women. St Francis had his companions. So did St Dominic and St Teresa. I started these small groups as a curate in Portsmouth and I saw the effect it had on those who took part.

Where did you get the idea from?

Yves Congar. A book called Lay People in the Church. In it, he speaks about the cells. I remember reading it and thinking: he’s right. Then I wrote an article for the Clergy Review about small communities. That was well before I became a bishop. So then I started it in Arundel and Brighton. When I began it in Westminster we had 20,000 people at Wembley Arena. That gave me a lot of satisfaction. Obviously not everyone joined. But people keep saying to me: “That started me off on a new way.”

Did you sit in on a group?

In Arundel and Brighton I joined a group in Storrington, where I lived. Just to show the priests that I was in for it as well.

So that gave me quite a lot of satisfaction. And then, of course, the conclave. Most cardinals lived and died because John Paul was there for so long. They never had a chance. So at least I had that privilege.

There were lots of other good things: preaching to the Queen at Sandringham and staying two nights. I’ve met her a lot and she came to lunch before I left at Archbishop’s House, Westminster. I met Prime Ministers quite a lot, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

You had a special relationship with Tony Blair.

Yes. There’s no doubt he’s a very believing man. Every time I went to see him I wanted to talk about policy and he wanted to talk about theology.

I always got on very well with Gordon Brown – not everybody’s cup of tea – chiefly because he was very keen on help for the poorest in Africa. I brought him out to Rome when he was Chancellor to talk to a meeting of cardinals and bishops. I thought his heart was in the right place.

Then of course I had my troubles with Tony Blair with the adoption agencies. I felt very bad about that.

Do you see that as his fault?

Well, I think he was bullied. He was under pressure from the homosexual lobby, which is terribly powerful, to pass a law which was totally unnecessary. Homosexual couples can adopt from any agency. Why pass this law? So by the time I wrote my letter to him the law had been passed and I said I wanted a dispensation. That was near the end of his time, so all he could do was say: “Well, I’ll give you 18 months.” He did think we would be able to sort it out. But we weren’t.

Do you think the Church could have done anything to save the agencies? For example, if you hadn’t written the letter everyone might have ignored it and the agencies might not have been challenged.

Oh, I think we would have been challenged by homosexual couples. That’s what I thought, which is why I wrote the letter. I thought that if we had just let it pass then at some time a homosexual couple would have come and we would have had to say no. Then the whole thing would have then gone to the courts and we would have lost. That’s why I decided to confront him.

What was it like to be made a cardinal?

To be made a cardinal is very significant because you become very close to the Pope. And, of course, the main thing is that you take part in the conclave.

Is it slightly terrifying to be made a cardinal? After all, the ceremony mentions shedding your blood for the faith.

I felt very privileged to belong to the body of cardinals. I never thought that when I was a curate down in Portsmouth that one day I would be a cardinal. I wasn’t an intellectual. I was happy to be a parish priest. But then providence intervened.

When I was made a cardinal I didn’t feel superior. But I felt I had a part to play in the international Church. Obviously, it helps here in London if you are made a cardinal. Please God, Archbishop Vincent will be a cardinal before very long. It helps on the national scene because there are a few archbishops around but there is only one cardinal. And then you’re able to do something in Rome as well. I’ve been to Africa as a cardinal. I’ve represented the Pope in India. I’ve done all sorts of things.

You’ve said voting in the conclave was one of the highlights. What was it like?

The most enjoyable thing is the 10 days before, going to meetings and attending dinners with other cardinals in utter secrecy, where you talked together. But then when you actually go into the conclave you’re allotted your room and you aren’t allowed to bring a phone. If you smuggled a mobile phone in they had blocked out the airspace overhead. A hundred and fifteen of us went into the Sistine Chapel. There were prayers and then the senior cardinal deacon said: “Exeunt omnes.” Everyone who was there except the cardinals went out. The doors were closed – oomph! We all looked at each other. It was quite moving.

During the two days of the conclave each of us one by one placed our votes standing before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. When you vote you say: “This is the man before God I think should be Pope.” And then you wait. The three scrutineers then read out the result.

You must have thought about the possibility of being elected yourself. After all, it could be any of the cardinals present.

I never seriously thought it would be me. But it was funny at the end when Cardinal Ratzinger was getting near the number of votes he needed. Then, when the voting had finished, the senior cardinal went up to him and said: “Your Eminence, you’ve been elected as the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church. Do you accept?” And the Pope – or rather Ratzinger – said: “I accept as the will of God.” The cardinal said: “What name do you take?” Immediately he said: “Benedict.” I think every cardinal had a name up his sleeve just in case!

What would yours have been?

I had three in my mind. Adrian, because Adrian IV was the English one. Then I thought of Gregory. And I thought of Benedict.