In Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s memoir we hear the authentic sound of faith
In spite of the season of the year, at first I didn’t get the significance of the title. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor takes it from a sermon by Blessed John Henry Newman to the first synod of the restored hierarchy of England and Wales, at Oscott in 1852. Newman speaks of his hopes for a “second spring” for the Church in this country, but reminds the congregation that they can hardly be surprised if it turns out to be an English spring: unpredictable weather, “cold showers and sudden storms”.
Indeed, and it’s good to be reminded from the outset of these memoirs what a progressively uncertain world it must have seemed to the young Cormac. In his early years matters stood differently. He explains in his introduction that “the Church I was brought up in was, in a way, a kind of fortress”. Not that any sort of fretfulness about the state of the world or anxiety for its future should be inferred – not all. The good humour lasted throughout the turbulences and sadnesses that were to come.
A significant aspect of the charm of these memoirs lies in the serenity and good will of their author. This is a book which does the reader good: it leaves him or her feeling in a better mood and a bit saner about the human condition than might otherwise reasonably be the case.
If you are as old as the cardinal, then you have witnessed world war followed by a Cold War, the emergence of a new Europe, the Second Vatican Council and its impact, ecumenism as a major concern of the Church, the dissolution of social and political orders, and the new globalisation. You remember eight popes. This wider background illuminates Cormac’s own experience as a priest and confidant of the major figures in the Church in this country at the time: Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop Worlock and Cardinal Hume.
He knew Rome (though he was 67 years old before he came to live in London) from being a student at the English College and later as the college’s rector in 1971-77. This gave him a useful assurance in his dealings with the Vatican, not least when he had his own diocese in Arundel and Brighton in 1977-2000. Contacts and friendships with members of the royal family, archbishops of Canterbury, politicians and some of the larger personalities of his era are observed with kindliness and acuity. But the palm has to go to the Queen Mother. After lunch, Cormac and the Queen Mother were singing wartime songs to each other. She sang one.
“I thought I knew all the songs of the Second World War, but I have never heard of that one,” he said.
“You wouldn’t,” she said. “It was a hit tune in 1910.”
Why did I find this easy to read and comforting book so compelling? It provoked deep reflection on the times through which its author has lived. The story’s starting point in every sense was the power of the model of the family, the first formatting of personality for Cormac. His experience of family life was happy – simply that. Irish roots and strong culture, and the example of their parents, made it quite natural for three of the five Murphy-O’Connor boys to become priests. This was “the domestic church” of the family at its best.
Secondly, and probably in consequence, in these memoirs we are listening to a man who is comfortable in his own skin. He is untroubled by any angst of insecurity about identity, not fussed by the restlessness of the self-conscious intellectual, not burdened by ambition or great plans; instead, we hear the authentic sound of faith. It is plain and spoken with a benevolence which addresses the latent holiness in others.
It’s true we do not get a detailed record or commentary. There is a noticeable economy in the assessments of others and, of course, no indiscretions, never mind gossip. So some may cavil because their own special interests, such as debates about the liturgy or the role of women, have not been adequately covered for them. But by taking his stand on the level centre ground of orthodoxy, Cormac draws us in towards those truths he has served. We get a view from the inside outwards and not introspection, a view of the world which is extroverted and ecstatic, not self-referential.
The note of serenity is clear in Cormac’s use of the image of Jesus asleep in the boat while the storm builds up on the lake. Quietly, Cormac is reminding us that the promises of Christ are the ultimate security of the Christian, beyond the horizons of earthly troubles and earthly consciousness. He writes movingly of unhappy marriages and death, but nonetheless, as a cavalry officer might be forgiven for saying, he remains “good in traffic”.
For different readers there will be different delights in this book: photographs of Cormac the golfer, Cormac carrying an ashtray for Bishop Worlock, the brilliance of Sister Clement at lunch for the Queen at Archbishop’s House, Cormac and Bob Geldof at Westminster Cathedral – but for many there will be a renewed sense of gratitude for the gift of this cardinal and of priests altogether. Cardinal Cormac as well as having two brothers priests Fr. Pat & Fr. Brian. He had three uncles Fr. Arthur, Fr. Joseph, Fr. Donal and three first cousins Fr. Laurence OFM, Fr. Jerome O.P. and Fr. Kerry
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (15/5/15).