By Joseph Kelly
Occasionally, as you journey through life, you meet some unlikely person whose path becomes curiously intertwined with your own.
If I’d suggested to my late father, a devout Catholic, that his then wayward son would one day be sharing jokes with a cardinal, he’d have laughed heartily.
But such was to be the case with Cormac Murphy O’Connor.
Long before I first met His Eminence, our shadows had already fallen across each others doorsteps. Though separated by three decades, we both grew up in Reading, Berkshire, and we both attended the town’s Catholic Grammar school, Presentation College.
At the time my late father, Terence, was a Provincial Grand Knight of the KSC, who worked closely with our parish priest on many occasions – Canon Brian Murphy-O’Connor of English Martyrs, who was one of Cormac’s five brothers.
My first face-to-face meeting with Cormac was to come many years later, in circumstances that created an enduring (and, for me, much cherished) friendship that lasted to his death.
In the early 1990s, as the recently appointed editor of The Universe, I spent a great deal of my time attending numerous Church events, in my efforts to raise the profile of the newspaper.
In 1996, Manchester to Brighton was a particularly long trek to make a short speech, and I fully expected the AGM of the UCM to be a modest gathering in a small hall – but it was in a packed Brighton Conference Centre, in front of almost 1,000 members.
By the time my wife and I sat down to their annual dinner afterwards it’s fair to say we were both shattered, and I was at somewhat less than my best company.
Sensing this, the Bishop of Arundel and Brighton promptly jumped up and rearranged the carefully prepared seating plan, and insisted we both sit beside him at his top table.
A very inexperienced Catholic editor alongside a bishop might have seemed like stress, but the subsequent evening far more resembled an Irish fireside than any formal dinner; Cormac was on top form, and both entertained and fascinated us with his unique signature mix of witty, informal anecdotes threaded to the deepest of theological observations.
One might have expected such an encounter to be singular, a chance part of the job, especially as at that time Cormac was already rising rapidly up the ranks of the Catholic establishment.
Thankfully it was not to be so – that evening launched a friendship that on numerous occasions I found invaluable and heartwarming, that helped not only to guide The Universe and my daytime vocation, but my private faith too.
Some people are changed immeasurably by greatness, and few remain unaffected by high status. Of all the figures across many walks of life that my editorship subsequently brought me to, I can say with absolute honesty that Cormac Murphy O’Connor was by far the most unaffected by his increasing rank. His joyful, delighted greeting remained steadfast throughout, and his outstretched hand became something of a rock in many a storm.
On several occasions when we met we both mused that we were the most unlikely people to be in our various positions, and it became something of a standard joke to ask each other if we were still in the same job!
Of the occasional private meetings we had there’s little to be said, other than that he was a man with whom it was quite impossible to be anything other than completely one’s self.
In his years as cardinal he was utterly unchanged in this; and it was one of the most unusual things to realise that in some tiny cafe or restaurant you were actually sitting across from a cardinal.
My late father would have been astonished at the mere thought of it!
Much of the detail of those private meetings will forever stay that way, it’s the laughter and companionship that I’ll always wish to remember.
But there was a nagging sadness underneath as well, especially in his later years. The Fr Michael Hill case had cast a huge shadow over Cormac’s glowing career, over his soul too, and he remained genuinely tortured by it.
On the few occasions it came up, he was wrenched by the fact that the Church at this time gave little consideration to the victim, but rather sought to protect what it saw as ‘a fallen brother’.
Initially, Cormac sought to make the point that this strategy was drummed in to priests, who became convinced of a ‘Church vs society’ mentality, to the extent that the Church and many of its clergy believed themselves to be above not only the civil law but, in many respects, divine law as well.
Cormac tried to address this issue frankly in his autobiographical memoir, An English Spring, but it’s said he was put under considerable pressure to redraft the entire chapter to emphasise the damage to the victim, rather than the catastrophically inadequate nature of priestly instruction at the time.
I’ve not seen his original draft, but it was a shame in many ways that he acquiesced – we’ve put plenty of high fences up in an attempt to ensure that abusers never reach the priesthood, but we’re still a long way from explaining how such an institutional catastrophe was able to happen in the first place.
The cardinal could have given us some of those answers, not least because in June 2010, after the Ryan Report and Murphy Report on the abuses by the Church in Ireland, he was named along with others to oversee the apostolic visitation of certain dioceses and seminaries, with Cormac being appointed as Visitor to the Diocese of Armagh.
In 2012 I lunched with him and asked, in the most general terms, about his findings, and if the Armagh period had in any way enlightened his thinking on the reasons for clerical abuse.
His answer was short but emphatic: “Power, Joe, the Church had far too much power.”
The cardinal was also resolute that it was vital to understand that the closed clerical culture of the period had bred what he described as a “fatal arrogance.”
About this the cardinal felt aggrieved that his Church – and seminary formation in particular at the time – had not only failed to provide adequate advice and pastoral instruction on how to deal with such matters, but had in many respects actively indoctrinated priestly candidates to disregard the law.
For many in modern times, this position was a step too far, and was seen as the cardinal seeking to shift the blame for his actions in moving Fr Hill, rather than delivering him to the authorities.
He did in fact bear his burden of his culpability extremely heavily – I saw it once in his pained eyes – at a formal function, when a well known MP very overtly refused to shake his hand.
He was carrying a Cross for sure.
For any editor, preparing an obituary is a time of searching back through old editions, and scanning through numerous photographs.
About Cormac Murphy O’Connor there really is a very great deal to remember of a man who made an extraordinary contribution – to theology, ecumenism, social and moral debates, and to the lives of the people he knew.
In December 2006, for instance, he delivered a stinging reprimand to Prime Minister Tony Blair who, on World AIDS Day, had ventured to criticise the hierarchy for their critical stance on condom distribution as a ‘solution’ to the crisis.
Cormac retorted: “it would be much better if he used that money to provide more antiretroviral drugs – medicines – for the millions of children, women who are affected.”
In 2007 I watched him take to Trafalgar Square to address a crowd of undocumented aliens in support of the Strangers into Citizens campaign and, in the same year, he was again putting pressure on Tony Blair to rethink pending regulations granting rights to same-sex couples to adopt children.
In February 2008 he ordered the board of St John and St Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Catholic hospital partly funded by the NHS, to resign because its general practice prescribed the morning-after pill and issued abortion referrals, and in March of the same year he was again at loggerheads with the Government over its proposed Embryology Bill.
When not campaigning on social justice issues, the cardinal was deeply committed to ecumenical initiatives, especially the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), an organisation created in 1969 to make ecumenical progress between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.
Cormac co-chaired the second of the commision’s development, from 1983-2011. The topics covered by ARCIC II included the doctrine of salvation, communion, teaching authority, and the role of Mary the mother of God.
Cormac had particularly high hopes for ARCIC, and its progress relied heavily on his personal charisma and unique ability to reach across boundaries and get people talking. It therefore came as a huge disappointment to him when, in 2003, John Paul II suddenly suspended the talks, following the consecration of Gene Robinson, a homosexual man in a non-celibate relationship, as a bishop in the Episcopal Church in the USA.
This may have been the trigger, but concerns had already been expressed in some circles that Catholic/ Anglican dialogue was doomed, not least because of the fundamental obstacle of differing attitudes to female clergy. For Cormac, the commonalities far outweighed the obstacles, and he remained desperate for the work of ARCIC to continue.
Sadly, the prevailing mood in the Church at this time was that the only function of dialogue was conversion, and not communion, so the ARCIC initiative was largely defused, and only ploughs on in much diluted form.
The collapse remained one of the cardinal’s greatest disappointments.
He unquestionably delighted in his later ‘emeritus’ years; free from the burdens of formal office and daily scrutiny.
He once joked that he’d finally got one over on me – “sorry, Joe, but I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ‘emeritus editor’ role,” he said with a hearty laugh.
I exchanged a flurry of emails and a phone call with him just a few weeks before his death, and he was in fine spirits.
Chiswick had been perfect for him; he once said that it gave him both the nearness to the beating heart of Westminster, yet the anonymity to be just a person along the high street when he needed it.
Of course he was never that and, in his last years, he was perhaps more loved than at any time in his illustrious career.
For me, it’s those lunchtimes in little cafes in Chiswick high street that I’ll remember most fondly. For all his greatness, it was always a time shared with a humble priest. R.I.P. dear friend.
Joseph Kelly is the CEO and Editor of The Universe Catholic weekly.
Picture: Searching for unity: Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Archbishop Rowan Williams attend a service in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, West Bank, on 21st December 2006.
The two Church leaders were on a four-day visit to the Holy Land.
(CNS photo/Nayef Hashlamoun, Reuters)