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I find God in other people

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor speaks at Hay

Maggie Fergusson | May 23rd 2015

Teachers resorted to megaphones at the Hay Festival yesterday. With hours to go before the half-term bell, their pupils—several hundred of them—thronged the walkways between tents, eking out their lunch money in the cafés and turning cartwheels on the verges, before lifting off like a giant flock of birds at the end of the afternoon.

In a moment of calm after their departure, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, former head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales (a glimpse of crimson peeping from under his black V-neck), took to the Telegraph stage in front of an audience of nearly 1000, to be interviewed by Rosie Boycott. I quailed for him. He’s 82, his hands shake, and his expression in repose is slightly haunted. Back in the 1970s, while he was rector of a seminary, training men for the priesthood,  Boycott was founding the feminist magazine Spare Rib. I didn’t expect her to cut him much slack when it came to discussing some of the thornier issues he tackles in his new memoir, “An English Spring”.

But she began by taking him over some easy jumps—so much so that I wondered whether she’d ever get to the child-abuse scandal at the heart of the book. We learned what it was like to be part of the election of a new pope: how every cardinal has a couple of names up his sleeve in case he’s picked (in a wild moment, he’d wondered about “Cormac the First”); that, when the new pope emerges from the conclave, the Vatican tailor stands waiting in the wings bearing three white cassocks: large, medium and small.

Then, with both cardinal and audience lulled, the heat was turned up. In a church so bound by tradition, Boycott asked, what scope was there for change—particularly on the question of women priests? Here the cardinal was firm, if baffling: “Ever since the time of the Lord, priests have always been men. The pope hasn’t the authority to change that”. He was equally unbending on the Irish vote on gay marriage: “I hope it’s a NO. I think marriage is marriage—and that means a man, a woman, and children. You can say that gay union is the same; I don’t think it is.” But he talked of contraception as an issue on which “every priest must act as a pastor” (which I took to mean “must make up his own mind”), and suggested that it might not be long before the church allowed Catholic priests to marry.

And then to child abuse. In the summer of 2000, shortly after he’d become cardinal, it emerged that Murphy-O’Connor had, some years earlier, allowed a known paedophile, Michael Hill, to continue serving as a priest in his diocese. He was fully aware of Hill’s record, but when faced by Hill crying, and begging on his knees to be allowed to continue as a priest, he appointed him chaplain at Gatwick Airport—a ministry in which he thought there would be little opportunity for further misdemeanor. Hill quickly offended again, has since served two prison sentences, and has left Murphy-O’Connor with a burden of shame he will carry to the grave. There was little doubting the sincerity of his remorse: “I was very wrong. I should have reported him to the police and the social services. I didn’t. I will always look back on my decision with sorrow and shame.”

In the wake of the scandal, he’d commissioned the Nolan Report, whose 76 recommendations had been adopted by all the bishops of England and Wales. He was optimistic that it had engendered “a culture of safeguarding” which would make it difficult for anything like the Michael Hill scandal to happen again.

The Cardinal’s honesty, and lack of spin, meant that when it came to questions from the audience, there was a marked lack of aggression, even from those who clearly didn’t share his beliefs. We moved again over women priests, gay marriage and the vexed question of gay adoption. But one final question was more transcendental: “Have you had a connection to the sacred, and, if so, what does it look like?” His answer, after some reflection, took the form of an anecdote about a party he’d given when bishop of Arundel and Brighton, at which he’d watched a bank manager, whose wife was an invalid, dancing with his disabled daughter. “I saw in him love and pain, and it was as if the pain in his life contributed to his love, and the love to his pain. I saw in him the face of Christ. I find God in other people.” 

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