The cardinal was at ease with the Establishment, but they often ignored him
The sad passing of Cormac, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, at the age of 85, has naturally generated a crop of obituaries. The Telegraph tells us a great deal about his career as an ecumenist and his dedication to ARCIC and building better relations with other Christians. The Times had a well-rounded piece mentioning among other things his quiet influence behind the scenes in the global Church, which was responsible, perhaps, for the election of Pope Francis (if we can be certain about secret Papal elections). The Guardian had a signed piece by Peter Stanford, former editor of this magazine, which deals at length with his warm character, and, as one would expect from Peter Stanford, offers a penetrating analysis of his career in the Church. The BBC has also published an obituary, which, I thought, provided a few insights not offered elsewhere.
What I took away from reading these obituaries is that Cormac was very much of his age, and perhaps when the history of our times comes to be written, he will feature, not perhaps as a major figure, but one without whom the time cannot be understood. For so many of the great people of our time, Cormac represented the acceptable face of religion, at least most of the time. He was greatly liked by Her Majesty the Queen, for example, who, with Prince Philip, attended his private leaving party at Westminster Cathedral when he retired. He was at ease with the Blairs and the whole New Labour thing; New Labour now seems rather a long time ago, and that perhaps underlines both the greatness of Cormac and his limitations. If he succumbed to the charms of Tony Blair, he can hardly be blamed: so many of us did. He was certainly at ease with the chief players of the nation, and his warmth, wit, and imposing appearance made him just the sort of person they liked. If they did not listen to all that he said, that was hardly his fault.
I got a taste of this about six months ago. I was invited to interview a very famous author in his club in Covent Garden. He was having lunch, and I was put on a chair outside the dining room, in earshot of various voices within, one of whom I recognised. It was Cormac, sounding very much at home.
But that was only one side of him, for he was equally at ease and charming with ordinary people. Thousands of parishioners in Arundel and Brighton and later Westminster treasured their encounters with him. He had time for them, and there was genuine warmth there.
I only ever met him to talk to once. It was at a gathering of several hundred people, at which Dame Vera Lynn was present. Cormac made a speech in which he alluded to the fact that he had been at the Festival of Remembrance with Dame Vera where they had all sung “We will meet again”. He remarked: “But I had no idea it would be so soon.” I thought that was a very good joke. Later, for some reason, I was on the same table as him, and he asked my name. “Oh yes, I know who you are,” he said. “I read everything you write, and I think it is all very sensible.” That was a nice thing to say, and it gave me an insight into his character.
May he rest in peace!