The death of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – a solid and cheerful presence at the helm of English Catholicism for almost two decades – has touched Catholics across the world. And not only Catholics: some of the most moving tributes to the former Archbishop of Westminster have come from the leaders of other Christian communities.
These condolence messages point to the cardinal’s most obvious legacy: his success in crossing the barriers between Christians. His commitment to ecumenism survived the most shattering disappointments. The Church of England’s vote for women priests 25 years ago seemed to demolish his dream of unity between Anglicans and Catholics. But he never stopped reaching out, convinced that eventually Christians would be united, just as Jesus had prayed. In his final public message the cardinal gave thanks, characteristically, for “the many Anglican and Free Church colleagues whose friendship I have valued very much”. We must be careful not to neglect the bridges that he spent a lifetime constructing.
The cardinal also strengthened another delicate relationship: the one between the British monarchy and its Catholic subjects. He was rightly proud of becoming the first Catholic cleric since 1688 to preach to the reigning monarch. He also enjoyed a delightful rapport with the Queen Mother. The last time they met she sang him a song. “I thought I knew all the songs of the Second World War, but I have never heard of that one,” he told her. “You wouldn’t,” she replied. “It was a hit tune in 1910.” Building on Cardinal Basil Hume’s work, he helped to bury the stubborn myth of Catholic disloyalty to the Crown.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor led the Church in England and Wales through one of its worst crises of modern times. Facing calls to resign as Archbishop of Westminster over his handling of an abuse case in the 1980s, he pushed on and helped to introduce strict child protection measures. While the new rules were unpopular among priests, who felt vulnerable to false accusations, Rome came to regard them as a model for the whole Church.
Those who knew the cardinal only from his halting television appearances might have been surprised to learn that he was a warm, gregarious soul. Many who went to see him bearing burdens left feeling lighter.
He was a great encourager – as the Catholic Herald can testify. When we became a magazine in 2014, after 126 years as a broadsheet newspaper, he spoke generously at our launch party. He urged us to “open up new avenues” for the faith. We hope that we can honour him by striving to meet that challenge, week in, week out.
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