Page 8, 27th October 2006

27th October 2006
Page 8
Page 8, 27th October 2006 — ON 50 YEARS OF PRIESTHOOD

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Locations: Rome, Portsmouth, Reading, London


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Tomorrow, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor celebrates the Golden Jubilee of his ordination to the priesthood .In the following interview with Catholic editors, which took place at Archbishop's House, Westminster, on October 20, he reflects on 50 years in the priesthood.

Q: What do you consider to be the main changes in the Church in that period of time?

Cardinal Cormac MurphyO'Connor: I was ordained in 1956, six years before the Second Vatican Council. The mission of the Church then was very much contained: we were looking after our parishes, we had our schools and hospitals and the religious orders were flourishing.

Vatican 11 opened up the Church to the world. We are still absorbing the crucial documents of the Council, whether it is Lumen Gentium, which was about the Church, or the liturgy, which is always a hot subject and still very much so at the moment. (It's no wonder that they said: We'll deal with this first" because they realised that the way that you pray is the way you believe.) Of the other documents, the most important were Gaudium et Spec, the Church in the modem world and Del Verbum, about the Word of God. It's important to remember that the role of Scripture in the life of the Church had been underplayed since the Reformation. So the event is still something that lives with us and we continue to debate the issues raised, education, ecumenism and so on. The document on interfaith dialogue, Nostra Aetate, is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

And there have been other dramatic events in my lifetime, such as the visit of Pope John Paul to Britain. It is terrible speaking to young people who don't know what that was like, that extraordinary week. I'm hoping that someone will write a good history of the Catholic Church to bring these events alive for future generations. There have been biographies about Archbishop Worlock and Cardinal Hume but in my view they are not effective and don't reflect, in a real way, the history of the Catholic Church ad intro and ad extra. It would be good to reflect from inside on the Church, and the Church's impact on this country.

Has the priesthood changed in the time that you've been a priest?

Not in a fundamental way. The priest has always been ordained to preach and to administer the sacraments, and to be a shepherd to the people. But the way in which he exercises that priesthood has changed quite considerably. Today the priest has to deal with many different communities in his parish.

When I was a young priest, you were a priest for the Catholics. I don't think that's true anymore. Many people, regardless of religious affiliation, feel that the priest is there for them too. The task of the priest is to nourish the Catholic community with his preaching and his ministry of the sacraments, but he is also a focus for the whole neighbourhood.

With all the challenges of the priesthood, somehow I think that it is even more fulfilling today than it ever was. I really do.

Do you think that the demands on individual priests are greater now?

When I meet headteachers or doctors, everyone says they experience a lot of hassle. Parish priests in my own time didn't have that sort of hassle. They did their own thing. They didn't have anybody coming along saying: "You have to do it this way."

A priest has to continually learn new skills and that's why the proper involvement of lay people in parishes is going to be important in every way.

Talking to Pope Benedict the other day, he said: "You've got to have lay people who are able to give an account of their faith."

We've got intelligent Catholics all over the place but for many of them their education, their formation as Catholics, stopped when they left school. In all the dioceses there is now a concerted effort to form lay people so that they become a more articulate voice of the Catholic Church. That's why young people are so important — these are the green shoots of the Church.

But is it not difficult nowadays for priests to work with young people because of all the suspicions that surround priests? The whole question For abuse] has been a source of great sorrow and shame. I think that the Catholic Church in England and Wales has dealt with it quite well, with the Nolan Commission and the recommendations that were accepted by all the bishops very thoroughly. In every parish now we have a child protection person and the Cumberlege Conunission is dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s. We live in a new time and, please God, anybody who has abusive tendencies would be rooted out very quickly before he joined the priesthood. One thing about the Catholic Church is that when it knows that it's got something wrong, we face up to it, and I think we did in that case fairly well.

Looking back to 50 years ago when you were ordained. what has the Church lost from that time that you would regret and what do you think it has particularly gained?

The Church hasn't lost anything, in the sense of the gifts that come to it from Christ. What has changed is the sense of family community. When I was a young priest, there were strong Catholic families where the faith was second nature, where it was nourished through evening prayer and other liturgical practices. Sadly that's gone and there are also many more breakups of marriage.

The Church is having to build — or re-build — its community the whole time. It is not only semper reformanda, always reforming itself; it is also semper construenda, always building itself. lf you were living in a parish in the old days life was constricted to the parish community, parish church, parish club. Now the parish community has got to be much more outward-looking into society.

My father was a prominent citizen in Reading, a well-known doctor. He was asked to be a JP, but he didn't feel that was part of his duty, to enter into public life. I don't think that would be true now. You see Catholics all over the place in public life. I'm edified by all the different people in London who come up to me and say they are Catholic. In our society there is a very evident resurgence of interest in religion.

Does this point to an increasing confidence among Catholics to speak about their faith?

Yes. When I was young most of the parish in my former diocese of Portsmouth were immigrants, from Ireland, Italy or other places. But their sons and daughters, and grandchildren are not immigrants. They don't feel on the periphery. They feel, "This is my country and I've got a part to play."

About 20 years ago.! used to run ecumenical meetings in the diocese. We had a little questionnaire, which asked whether we thought the Church of England should be disestablished. The answer was 80 per cent "no" and 20 per cent "yes". I did the same exercise 20 years later and it was the other way round. There's a sense that Catholics now want to be on a par. It's not that we want the prestige. But the Catholic Church wants the other churches to be free. But that's a debate for the Church of England.

Do you mean that the Catholic Church in this country should have some kind of quasi-establishment role?

No, not at all. I don't think we would seek that: there would be too many disadvantages. Cardinal Hume declined to become a member of the House of Lords. We were often getting requests from members, especially from Catholic lords, wanting bishops to join. There had been a mixed reaction among bishops to that. There are some who think we should be. Towards the end of his life Cardinal Hume was wondering whether he should. He said to me once that he would never go in just because he was Cardinal Hume and that as a special person he got it, like Lord Jacobovits, who got it as a personal thing. No, he said that if we go in, we ought to go in by right. But I think it is very doubtful. In canon law bishops aren't supposed to have a political role and I don't think Rome would go along with it. And also I don't think our bishops on the whole would feel that it is to our advantage to be in the House of Lords. We can get our say in other ways. It's nice now that the bishops, and especially the archbishops, are speaking out on all kinds of issues very strongly. When I was young the bishops didn't do that. The Archbishop of Westminster didn't have much to say in the public forum. However, people today want to know what the Church thinks.

I've spoken a tot over these past few years at different dinners and receptions. People want to hear a clear voice on religion, no question, even if they don't always agree. I get a terrific lot of invitations to speak. Why? Because I'm a prominent Catholic bishop and people want to hear. Whoever was in this place would have to do that. And the same is true, though perhaps to a lesser extent, of the other bishops.

When I was first in Arundel and Brighton the Queen came to open the marina in Brighton and I wasn't invited. I decided that wasn't good enough. So I wrote a snorter to the mayor saying I didn't mind missing the banquet but the Catholics of Brighton and beyond would be appalled that their bishop was not there to express their loyalty to the Queen. I've forgotten how I put it, but it was a good letter! Anyway, I was never left off after that, I assure you.

I think the same is true of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. We are much closer now, not just because of my going to Sandringham and talking to the Queen, and being with her for a couple of nights and talking closely to her. That was good. She doesn't do that very often with Catholic bishops. I think she quite enjoyed it. It was just another voice other than the normal ones from the establishment.

is it significant that we have a Catholic royal wedding coming up, with Lord Nicholas Windsor [and Paola Frankopan]?

I think the Queen doesn't want to have too much to do with it, really. Not because she doesn't approve of the wedding. They were here a few nights ago. A delightful couple, I must say. I really enjoyed meeting them. I think the Queen is happy about it and there is no problem.

As for Prince William being able to marry anyone but a Catholic... that will go eventually. But I don't think we need to make a big song and dance about it now. It will disappear.

How do you think you will feel when you celebrate your jubilee?

I don't know really. I was talking today — we had a gathering of religious — about the things that sustain me in my priestly life: obviously faith, my family and my friends. You receive your faith as a gift, but your family and friends are mixed up with that. One of the really nice things about being a priest is that you build up some really close friendships. I think that a priest — partly because of the celibate life — is able to be closer to lots of people in a way that I don't think is quite as true of married people who have their own circle of loved ones. The priest is able to be both detached and very close. It's very curious and very good.

How old were you when you first thought you had a vocation?

I remember that I was driving with my father in Reading when he was doing his calls. I was 15 and he suddenly turned to me and said: "What are you going to do?" I just suddenly said: "I want to be a priest." I'd always thought before then that I was going to be a doctor like him or maybe a musician, I'd vaguely thought of teaching. But that just suddenly popped out. Did he make an emergency stop?

I can't remember what he said... I used to be a vocations director and I used to go round schools. In the primary schools I'd ask: "How many of you would like to be priests?" They all put up their hands. And then I went to secondary schools. The 13,14 and 15-year-olds were a bit of a dead loss. I spoke to the sixth-formers. I can still see them sitting there looking absolutely blank, they didn't dare show any interest at all. But there were always one or two who wanted to see me privately.

Sometimes we go through difficult times but the Church not only survives, it is reformed. It always ' throws up saints during times of crisis. I suspect now that there are saints brewing all over the place.

You mentioned that after you were ordained there was a liturgical revolution in the Church. Are we on the verge of another one now, as you prepare to celebrate your jubilee?

The liturgical renewal that began at the Second Vatican Council won't change. What Pope Benedict thinks with regard to the Latin Mass is that he fears that a particular tradition will go out the window. They say some document's coming out. No one's seen it. I don't think there's any question of "going back".

Both priests and lay people need to work at a reverent and prayerful participation in the liturgy, based on the Missa Normativa. That's what the Council said. And when you go to a parish where the liturgy is prayerfully celebrated, it is really a wonderful thing.

With regard to the Latin, I think the Pope is saying there will be a certain number of people who know Latin who wish to celebrate in this way, so opportunities ought to be more freely given to do so. In this county it won't be so difficult because we are already doing it. Here in this diocese there are quite a number of parishes where the Tridentine Rite is celebrated.

Remember, people aren't brought up now with Latin. It's rarely taught in schools. All my lectures in Rome at university were in Latin. The whole liturgy was in Latin. The exams were in Latin. We spoke to other students from foreign countries in Latin. It was a different world.

These are challenging times for the Church but I am not discouraged. Here in this diocese we're concentrating on the five priorities I've put in the Communion and Mission paper, following the At Your Word, Lord programme. Of course, there'll always be things to be criticised, things to be improved. But that's normal.

Your. workload sounds extremely daunting. Do you think it would be advisable for the Archbishop of Westminster to have a smaller diocese?

I remember Cardinal Heenan talking to me about this. Yet if I had a smaller diocese it would be more difficult to lead the kind of renewal that I've instigated in Westminster. The effect would not be as as great. In the other big cities in Europe, such as Spain and Belgium, they are doing big city evangelisation programmes. Maybe we should do the same here.

The workload is great and that is why you need bishops who are good. And, thank God, I am very well served by the four auxiliary bishops who work extraordinarily hard in serving the diocese. The archbishop must be wise enough to delegate, not to take on too much, and to try and make sure that his "vision" for the diocese is clearly communicated, even if the implementation is done by others.

How long would you imagine that you might continue to do this?

I've already said that, rest assured, I'll be here for a while yet. But 1 really don't know. I'm going to offer my resignation, and then we'll see what the Pope wants. Am I ill? Am I slack? Do I feel, "God, I've had enough"? Not really.

Is there anything that you still want to achieve?

I want to see this process of renewal in the diocese through a little bit more and get it on its way. And then whoever follows will take it on from there. I was in Australia recently and I said to Cardinal Pell: "See you at World Youth Day [in 2008]!" We'll see.

The full text of this interview is on www.catholicherald .co .uk

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