This year marks the fifth anniversary of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s appointment as Archbishop of Westminster.
In a revealing interview, the Cardinal
tells Luke Coppen of his hopes for a
Catholic revival and reflects on his own sometimes turbulent years as head of the Church in England and Wales
Five years ago today Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor held a secret in his heart. He knew then – months before the rest of us – that his episcopal career would not end amid the golf ranges and village fetes of Arundel and Brighton. In March 2000 he would be installed as the 10th Archbishop of Westminster, succeeding Cardinal Basil Hume as spiritual leader of the Catholics of England and Wales.
I’ve always been intrigued by the term “spiritual leader”. Although it’s not an official title, it has attached itself stubbornly to the See of Westminster. And the men who sit on the gilded throne in Westminster Cathedral must bear its weight.
But what does it mean to say that Cardinal MurphyO’Connor is our spiritual leader? That is the question I wanted to pursue when I met His Eminence shortly before Christmas. He received me in his elegantly furnished reception room in Archbishop’s House. I was struck by his towering height, his dark formal dress, his warmth and curiosity.
The Cardinal is often asked about matters of current controversy – celibacy, condoms, the Curia – and though his answers supply headlines, they reveal little about what makes this privately engaging, but publicly hesitant man tick. I thought it would be inter esting to ask him less topical, but arguably more pressing questions – about heaven and hell, prayer and hope, love and responsibility – in order to understand better what kind of spiritual leadership it is that he offers.
What follows will, I’m sure, make a different impression on each reader. For my part, I came away reassured that our Church is governed by a man who trusts in Providence, a man who does not think that the fate of Catholicism depends on him alone. Here is a leader who knows his strengths and weaknesses and who, in the last analysis, wants nothing more than to be a good shepherd to his flock.
LC How and when did you know what God wanted from you?
From quite a young age I was thinking about what I was going to do in life. I had a number of things in mind. I thought of being a doctor, like my father, or a musician, because I was very keen on music and played the piano quite well. The priesthood must have been in my mind too, because I had uncles who were priests. But, I do remember when I came to a decision. I was out with my father in his car. He was doing house calls. Suddenly he turned to me and said: “What do you want to do?” Without a moment’s hesitation, I said: “I want to be a priest.” I can still remembering saying that, and that is going back some fiftysomething years. After that I had my hesitations, but I never had what I would call very serious doubts.
As you have moved from layman to priest, to bishop to cardinal, has believing and practising the faith got easier?
Life is a kind of pilgrimage. You go through stages. There are stages when faith, and the practice of faith, is not just easy, but very enthusiastic – particularly, I suppose, in younger life. But then you go through patches when things are more difficult, whether you are a priest or bishop or layman. There are times when it can be a struggle. That’s when you need the gift of perseverance, of being, as the Lord says, faithful to the end. Do you find it easy to pray?
I find it necessary rather than easy. If I don’t pray then it’s easy not for God to forget me, but for me to forget God in my priestly life. The time I give to prayer – especially in the morning, but also at other times – is very important to me.
It reminds me that I must listen to what God is saying to me in my life. God has to come first. Prayer for me is necessary, otherwise my life makes no sense.
Does your prayer have a contemplative or mystical dimension?
Prayer is both personal and communal, and there is a different reaction to both. Sometimes, in personal prayer, one does have a sense of contemplation. I also think that the prayer of the community, in the liturgy, is hugely important. There’s a contemplative side to that too.
The liturgy of the Church is so crucial to prayer, because the liturgy is the prayer of the Church and nourishes people’s private prayer.
Are there any saints who fire your soul, or who you look to to guide you through life’s trials?
Well, there’s St Francis. Having lived in Italy and often visited Assisi, I think that St Francis is a model of someone who left everything to follow Christ and found joy in the Gospel. His influence has been huge.
The other one is Teresa of Avila. She was so normal, even though she was a mystic. Sometimes she used to grumble with God.
Can you identify with that?
Yes. What is it she said to God? “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.” Or, “Life is like a night in a bad inn.” Or, as she said to her Sisters, “God is among the pots and pans.” That’s very useful. In other words, it’s in the nittygritty of life that you can find God, not always in the heights of contemplation. It’s also in the very ordinary aspects of one’s daily life.
So what you’re seeking in your spiritual life is to find God among the “pots and pans” of life in the Church?
I think so. I find that my life is the service of Christ in the mission of the Church. Therefore in the “busy-ness” of my life I try to find the presence of the Lord.
The other saint I would mention is Padre Pio. I went to see him when I was a student. I attended his Mass in San Giovanni Rotondo. I was extraordinarily moved by his celebration of Mass. He wore mittens to cover the wounds in his hands. Afterwards, I tried to go to confession, but there was such a queue. I met him later for a brief chat. He came across to me as a very normal man, just a lovely Italian Capuchin. Many of the stories of his miracles rang true, though perhaps some of them have been exaggerated. When I met him I thought to myself: “That man will be canonised one day.” Jesus teaches that the meaning of life is to love God and our neighbour as ourselves. How do we learn to love in a society that encourages selfinterest in every area of life, from work to relationships?
The way that people learn to love one another is, first of all, within the family. Family relationships are crucial. When you look at a baby and it smiles for the first time it’s an acknowledgement that the baby knows he, or she, is loved. Baptism, in a sense, is an expression by the Church that you are loved by God. So love is found first of all in the family, and then in the wider community. Life is about building up a community of brothers and sisters with a common task.
Even in our own society, where values are often lopsided and wrong, there are also good values, because they come from things like family.
How have you personally learned the art of loving God and others?
First of all, family. It is the ecclesiola, the “little church”, as Pope Paul said. I learnt it from my mother and father, from being brought up in an environment where there was a discipline of life. This helped me to know that I couldn’t think immediately of me, but of others, both within the family and beyond.
Many Catholics were able to pray as children, but find it much harder – some say almost impossible – to pray as adults. How can they learn to pray well again?
My advice to people who say they have hardly prayed since childhood is, firstly, to say that there is no golden rule for prayer. Secondly, the prayers that you knew as a child, the very simple prayers, don’t think you’ve got to change those. But you’ve got to meditate on them more deeply – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the short, ejaculatory prayers, the prayers of the Mass. Reflect on them slowly. You don’t have to learn more modes of prayers, but rather slower, more meditative forms of prayer, based on what you knew as a child. That’s what I would say to anybody who comes to me. There are whole books written about prayer. I never found them much help, because there’s no golden rule. But I would encourage people to read the Gospels again. When I was young we weren’t brought up to read the scriptures. The Church is now telling us that it wants us to hear the Word of God, which is focused in the scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, but especially in the Gospels. This should be a daily thing.
Should we also pray daily?
I find the best time to pray is early morning. So I would urge people that if it’s going to be the first thing in their lives, to make it first thing in the morning.
When you became a bishop you chose the motto gaudium et spes, from the opening words of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. How have you been able to sustain that joy and hope as the faithful have left the Church in droves, as churches have closed and as public life has been purged of Christian symbolism and teaching?
First of all, hope is a theological virtue. And I am hopeful, because I believe that God works in his ways, and that doesn’t depend on me. There’s that lovely passage in Ephesians, that “God can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine”. We think it all rests on us. But it doesn’t. It rests on God. When people say: “Are you optimistic about the Church despite falling numbers?” I think: “It doesn’t depend on numbers.” I was reading just yesterday what the Pope said in L’Osservatore Romano: “The effectiveness of evangelisation does not depend on numbers. Jesus himself teaches that what is small and hidden to human eyes, thanks to God’s almighty intervention, can obtain unhoped for results.” Good old Pope!
In our own country numbers have gone down. But what is important is the faith and witness of the people, so that the Church will always be the Church, never a sect, always the Church for the world. The witness, even if there are smaller numbers, is what matters. Obviously I’d like lots more people to become Catholic. Of course I would. And we’ve constantly got to invite people to come. But people will come when they see the witness of Catholic people. And in many of our parishes one sees flourishing, vital communities. So we shouldn’t be too discouraged.
Is there truly a crisis of faith within the Church?
There is. That’s a crucial point about Europe and the faith. For many people faith can be diluted by the mores of the world. Renewal of faith is always necessary and particularly necessary at the present time. The Church, for the first time in its history, has to live in a different way with fellow Christians, with people of other faiths and with a very secular society. Therefore while remaining the same, the Church has to confront a different social reality. It’s quite an extraordinary time in the long history of the Church.
How do you bear the responsibility of being the spiritual leader of the Catholic community in England and Wales?
I’m in quite good heart, really. If you accept that there’s a certain openness in one’s life to the will of the Lord and if, in that providence, I’m here in this position, I don’t feel overwhelmed by it. I just feel I have to do what I can with the gifts that I have from the Lord – to be a pastor, a good shepherd. That’s all I want to be.
Has there ever been a moment when you have felt overwhelmed by the challenges facing you?
Of course there have been challenges and difficulties. In those times I’ve just asked for the grace of perseverance. Sometimes in life, in the most difficult times, you are not aware of God in your life. It’s only when you think about it afterwards that you realise that He was there, sustaining you. I never presume on God. I always feel that one has to ask for God’s mercy and love, for God’s presence in one’s life, and to accept it as a gift and a grace – because that’s what it is. When people come into the Church they sometimes say how happy they are, because for the first time they experience a community where God’s love, forgiveness and presence are apparent. And that’s a new reality, which can’t be seen from outside the Church.
Are you confident that there will be a great revival in the Church – a Second Spring, a New Pentecost – within your lifetime?
I hope so, but I rely on the providence of God. The Catholic Church in this country is in a new situation, with new opportunities, and it is crucially important for Christian witness in England today. This means that the Catholic community has to be more open, braver, more courageous than ever before. It’s a new time for witness. It’s a time when the persecution is more subtle. We’ve got to swim against the tide. We’re no longer where we were when I was young, 50 years ago, at the periphery of society. We are now at the centre of society, able to witness to the values of the Gospel to Britain today.
When I was a boy, we Catholics didn’t think we had a part to play in the local community. We were content to be a separate institution, keeping the faith, making sure that you looked after the Catholics. But we didn’t think that we needed to have an impact on society as a whole. We left that to the Established Church.
But I don’t think that’s true anymore. I think that now Catholics are seeing themselves as part of society in a new kind of way, able to stand up and be counted as citizens of the country, but also as Catholics – as Christians, with our fellow Christians, but also with our own particular witness as Catholics.
Perhaps it’s providential that the Catholic Church is moving to the centre of society as society itself becomes increasingly secular?
I was speaking recently to a group of MPs, mostly Anglicans, and there was no doubt that they valued the support and the witness of the Catholic Church, particularly on social and ethical questions. Otherwise they feel: “Who is supporting us?” That’s why we can’t renege on our duty and obligations for the country as a whole.
Jesus instituted the sacraments to communicate divine grace to his followers. Is it conceivable that we can have a revival in the Church without a rediscovery of the sacraments, particularly the sacrament of reconciliation and the sacrament of the Eucharist?
You can’t divorce the revival of the Church from the celebration of the sacraments. Remember, the sacraments are celebrations of faith. So we’re talking about, how do you renew faith? Faith is renewed by prayer, by the Word of God in Scriptures, by witness to the faith. When this happens, the celebration of the faith becomes more reverent.
Naturally, I regret if there is any lack of reverence, especially towards the Holy Eucharist. I’ve just written a letter on the Holy Eucharist, coinciding with the Year of the Eucharist, to encourage people to understand more deeply the gift of that sacrament, to celebrate it more reverently and to realise that the day of the Lord is the day of the Lord, that Sunday is a special day. At Your Word, Lord [the pastoral renewal programme of the Archdiocese of Westminster] is particularly connected with people reading the Gospel and nourishing their faith, which enables them to celebrate the sacraments more worthily, I think.
The sacrament of reconciliation is something we still need to pay attention to. The celebration of this sacrament has varied a lot in the course of the Church’s history. Bishops, priests and lay people must continue to reflect on how they celebrate the forgiveness of Christ given through the Church in this sacrament.
So, the present form of Confession might not be appropriate for our age?
I’ve got to keep asking myself: “Why is it that people are not frequenting the sacrament as often as perhaps they should?” When I was a boy we went to Confession once a week, or once a month anyway. Now a lot of people only go once or twice a year, if that.
I think that the Church must continue to urge people to frequent this sacrament and find ways of celebrating it that actually reflect the needs of the people for forgiveness of sins. It’s a big question... I’ll think I’ll leave it like that.
Many people in this country, including Christians, are confused about what the Church teaches about life after death. To judge from films and fantasy novels, the people of our time have an intense interest in the afterlife. And yet, if they were to go to a Catholic church, they would be unlikely to hear a homily about heaven, hell and purgatory. Has the Church lost the confidence to proclaim that there will be a final reckoning after death?
The four last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – are realities. They should be preached – I do so myself, particularly in November, at the time of the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. If there is any reluctance – and I wouldn’t necessarily accept that there is – then I would be sorry about that, because we are bound to believe, and we do believe, not only the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, but in our own resurrection at the last day.
With regard to purgatory, all I can say is that most of us feel that when we die we are not ready for the beatific vision. And, however God is going to purify us, the Church expresses that through its doctrine on purgatory.
I often tell people to read or listen to The Dream of Gerontius, that wonderful poem of Newman, where Gerontius is confronted by God as he is dying and wants to be prepared for the beatific vision. It’s beautifully expressed in words – I don’t think I could do it better.
We’re not bound to believe that anybody’s there, let’s face it. But certainly in the Scriptures there’s a stark confrontation between heaven and hell.
But when Jesus talks about hell, it’s also exhorting people to repent, to turn away. It is in the context not of “you will be damned”, but “repent and turn to God”. I believe that hell exists and it is really the absence of God. What do you think heaven is like?
Well, I have not seen nor yet heard what God has prepared for those who love him, as St Paul says. Heaven for me is communio. It’s communion with other people, communion with the infinite beauty and blessedness of God, communion with myself in a new, strange way. And it’s a communion that gives everlasting joy.
I cannot think of heaven without thinking of being in communion with all the saints and with all the people I’ve loved on this earth.
It is sometimes said that there will be a separate heaven for Bavarians because they would not be in a state of eternal happiness if they had to share heaven with the Prussians.
Will Catholics and Protestants be together in heaven?
I hope they won’t be separate. I think that the divisions manifest here on earth will be reconciled in some mysterious way in heaven. I’m not thinking just of Catholics and Protestants, but people of other faiths and people of no faith. We are all children of God.
So we shouldn’t be surprised if we were to meet in heaven someone who was a Muslim or an atheist on earth?
I hope I will be surprised in heaven... I think I will be.