There was an unnerving moment during Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s installation at Westminster Cathedral in March 2000. The new spiritual leader of Catholics in England and Wales stumbled on the marble altar steps, and it looked as if his 6ft 4in frame would come crashing to the ground. But at the last second he caught himself and carried on. This was, with hindsight, a fitting metaphor for his choppy years as Archbishop of Westminster.

Murphy-O’Connor’s appointment to England’s premier see was a surprise. He had been preparing for retirement, not national leadership, when he received the nuncio’s call. Yet he was a shrewd choice, because he embodied the unique character of English Catholicism. In him, the Church’s two historic wings – Irish immigrants and the aristocracy – met and were reconciled.

He bore not just one but two Irish names thanks to his grandfather, who joined his surname with his half-brother’s when they went into the wine trade. Despite being born in Reading, Murphy-O’Connor spoke with an Irish lilt and had the easy charm associated with his ancestral land. Yet Clifford Longley once described him as “every inch a dog-walking, golfing, rugger- and piano-playing English country gentleman”. Though firmly middle class (his father was a doctor from County Cork), he moved comfortably in upper-class circles. He became a friend of the Duke of Norfolk during his more than two decades as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, and England’s senior Catholic layman is said to have helped him to Westminster.

Cardinal Basil Hume, the popular 9th Archbishop of Westminster, was perhaps the first to see Murphy-O’Connor’s full potential. In 1999, on his deathbed, he told him: “Cormac, you will have to take over this job.” Under Hume, the English Catholic Church had grown in confidence, if not in overall numbers. To be a Catholic was no longer to be a suspicious outsider. His unpretentious Benedictine spirituality resonated with the English and he welcomed an influx of high-profile converts, as well as hundreds of ex-Anglican clergy. Hume’s establishment project – his desire for Catholics to find a place at the heart of British affairs – had advanced further than he could have hoped.

After Hume’s passing, Murphy-O’Connor took up the project enthusiastically. Following the Queen Mother’s death in 2002, he became the first cardinal for centuries to read a scriptural passage at an English royal funeral. Later that year, at Sandringham, he was the first Catholic cleric since 1688 to preach a sermon to the reigning monarch. He considered taking a seat in the House of Lords and even prepared the opening of his first speech (“As my predecessor, Cardinal Pole, was saying …”). But he declined the offer after Rome vetoed it. He initially criticised the Act of Settlement, the law barring Catholics from inheriting the throne. But after a backlash he dropped the matter, saying that the Act would be quietly discarded one day.

Like most English bishops, Murphy-O’Connor broadly welcomed the ascendancy of New Labour in 1997, after almost two decades of Tory rule. He thought that the Church could help the government, led by the Catholic-friendly Tony Blair, to repair Britain’s frayed social fabric.

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