Book: Looking back on 'An English Spring'

  • Fr Rob Esdaile

It's just over three years since Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor published An English Spring. But it is only now (as we approach the first anniversary of his death, on September 1, 2017), that I have found time to read his memoirs. Perhaps it is not a bad moment to look back on the life and influence of this kind, gentlemanly figure who gave his whole life to the service of the Church.

The title of the book is borrowed from John Henry Newman's famous 1852 sermon to the newly restored Catholic hierarchy in these islands, gathered at Oscott. Cormac clearly recognised the variety of meteorogical metaphors which could be applied to his ecclesiastical career. In these islands Spring is, according to Newman, "an uncertain, anxious time … of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms." Such was Cormac's experience of high office. Yet Cormac emerges as a consummate, somewhat Micawber-esque optimist. Something will turn up, and it will ultimately prove providential, whatever storms might blow along the way - simply because Christ will not abandon his Church.

Those who knew Cardinal Cormac will quickly recognise his voice and its cadence (though we're never told that "there are three points" he wants to make in any of the chapters). That is the great pleasure of the book, especially on reading it now, after his death. An old, friendly and familiar voice re-enters the conversation. But that is also its limitation, for Cormac's mode of communication consisted also of sentences that trailed off and ideas not quite pushed through to a conclusion.

And the book is often revealing in ways not intended by the author. He seems hardly every to have lived alone - always a curate or a Bishop's Secretary or a seminary rector or a Bishop (who immediately built a household of nuns and secretaries around himself). Even in retirement he needed his Établissement. He was only ever a parish priest for a year, on the edge of Southampton. Clearly he needed other people around him in order to operate, yet there is never a suggestion of any pull on his heart-strings. We aren't permitted into Cormac's inner sanctum. Nor do we hear tell of any crisis of faith other than the external slings and arrows of controversy which assailed him in high office. His fundamental trust remained always invested uncritically in Holy Mother Church.

As used to happen at church receptions during his ministry, Cormac, from his commanding height, looks over our shoulder to see who else is in the room. The Duke of Norfolk, the Queen Mother, Norman St John Stevas, Tony Blair, Popes, Cardinals and Bishops all have their moments. Cormac loved all that - although he recounts the story of the clergy abuse crisis with deep humility and a moving honesty (and we owe him a great debt of gratitude for his allowing Lord Nolan to set in place the first stages of proper safeguarding systems in the Catholic Church).

I'm sure Cormac enjoyed the rumours that he was kingmaker at Bergoglio's election, but he makes no mention of the Sankt Gallen group of Cardinals in which he participated during the wintry days of Pope John Paul's final years, nor of the reception held at the British Embassy to the Holy See on the eve of the 2013 Conclave. Cormac could be furbo, cunning in a very Roman way, at times.

He was good at generating initiatives, perhaps less gifted at wrestling with significant thinkers. The only major theologian who gets one of his concepts referenced is Yves Congar, who introduced Cormac to the importance of the laity and the place of small Christian communities in the life of the Church. His admiration for Ratzinger's theology is recorded but not explained. And, in between these two bookends, despite his long involvement with ARCIC II, the summary of its work remains somewhat hazy.

Cormac liked to think that he knew Rome well, but he does not notice quite how poor a construction in Italian is his report of Pope Francis' jocular rebuke when they met after the latter's election: "Tu sei colpevole!" is a much more probable construction on the lips of the Pope from the End of the World. The anecdote also proves remarkably portable, moving from 'The Hall of Benedictions' (in Austin Ivereigh's earlier volume, The Great Reformer - with the same grammatical error) to Palazzola in Cormac's memoirs. And he saw nothing ironic in the comment by a Vatican insider on the dossier presented to the Congregation for Bishops at the time of his first appointment as Bishop, "I've never seen such a clean sheet."

Cormac clearly liked being on the Congregation for Bishops, viewing it as some form of consolation prize for having dutifully declined a peerage when Gordon Brown offered him one. But his involvement in another Vatican creation, Vox Clara, which eventually spoke with such a clunky lack of both clarity and poetry when it visited the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal on the world's English-speaking Churches, leaves no echo. I suspect that Cormac was neither a dominant nor a particularly brave voice in that 'conversation', though he was formally the secretary of the commission.

The most interesting material in An English Spring is perhaps to be found in his apercus about some of his brother bishops and the arcane workings of our Bishops' Conference. There's an amusing moment when the question of the possibility of the Catholic Metropolitans being made ex-officio peers of the realm (a slightly crazy plan mooted by the dying Basil Hume) is being discussed, with one agonised Archbishop exclaiming: "We don't agree. What are we going to do?" to which another Metropolitan replies: "It's all right. It's not a matter of faith or morals. We are allowed to have different views sometimes."

But the most extraordinary anecdote is surely his account of Cardinal Hume's attitude to the re-ordination of former Anglicans as Roman Catholic priests following the Synod vote in favour of the ordination of women: "This could be a big moment of grace. It could be the conversion of England for which we have prayed all these years." Egged on (and "slightly misled" by Graham Leonard, the Anglican Bishop of London), Basil, the reluctant ecumenist, seems to have expected a great wave of clerical 'converts', followed by an evisceration of the Anglican Communion. Was Hume, the nation's favourite spiritual leader in the Thatcher years, really that naïve? Is that how the decision was arrived at to undermine by indult the deep-rooted English Catholic presumption that priests simply MUST be celibate? It's hard to believe that Derek Worlock's take on matters would have been that simplistic, but it is at least one possible explanation of why things worked out the way they did a quarter of a century ago, and I've never heard a more convincing explanation for the rapidity with which the initiative was embraced.

Cormac's own envoi includes the line: "Church historians will be frustrated at the blurry factual detail and theologians may be frustrated by the lack of depth of the analysis." It's a fair objective judgement of the text. "And yet, well, I, you know, it seems to me …" (as Cormac might himself have continued in his disjointed way) it's not possible to remember him without deep fondness - not simply because of his consistent kindness to me personally during the nearly two decades between accepting me as a seminarian and his move to Westminster; not simply because he ordained me and because of the nine happy years during which I ministered under him in Arundel & Brighton; but because of his simple goodness. He was not a great leader and he usually knew it. But he was a kind and conscientious one. I dare say that for Cormac the prayer that ends his book (another borrowing from Newman) was fulfilled: "that I may receive the gift of perseverance, and die, as I desire to live, in thy faith, in Thy Church, in Thy service, and in Thy love." Amen to that.

An English Spring - Memoirs, by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, is published by Bloomsbury Press

Tags: Cardinal Cormac, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, An English Spring, Fr Rob Esdaile

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