Farewell to a Cardinal with a human touch

By Simon Hart

"I will remember him for his humanity, for his sense of humour and for the great care he showed to his brother bishops, priests, the people he served and all who he met. He was always approachable, willing to give his time to listen to anyone and to offer any help he could."

Archbishop Malcolm McMahon's words, uttered on the news of the death of Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, provided one of the many suitably warm epitaphs delivered in the memory of a man who left a deep imprint on the life of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales. He served as the 10th Archbishop of Westminster from March 2000 until retiring aged 76 in 2009 – the first archbishop to do so – and his contribution as leader of the Church in this country earned rich praise from Pope Francis in a message following his death on 1 September.

The pontiff, who was elevated to cardinal in February 2001 at the same time as his late associate, spoke of Cardinal Cormac's "unwavering devotion to the preaching of the Gospel and the care of the poor, and his far-sighted commitment to the advancement of ecumenical and interreligious understanding". Cardinal Cormac, who was 85 and had been suffering from cancer, had talked about his mortality in Radio 2's Pause for Thought slot late last year. Addressing the subject of 'A good death', he said: "In spite of all our weaknesses and failures, God loves us. So death must be of one piece with life. With the help of God, I hope I will be able to face it, not with fear but with hope and confidence as being in the hands of God."

If the testimony of close friends suggested that the twinkle in his eye stayed with him to the last, his final letter to the clergy and laity said that Cardinal Cormac, who was well accustomed to rushing from one appointment to the next, was ready for his soul's next step: "Please tell them that I am at peace, and have no fear of what is to come."

A man of many gifts – from musicianship through storytelling to the sporting genes which served his oldest brother James splendidly in an international rugby career with Ireland – Cardinal Cormac was born in Reading on 24 August 1932, the fifth son of Irish parents, George, a doctor, and Ellen. Educated at the Presentation College, Reading and Prior Park College in Bath, he began his training for the priesthood at the English College, Rome in 1950, where he joined two of his brothers, Brian and Patrick. While in Rome he gained licentiates in philosophy and theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University. As he would later recount on BBC's Desert Island Discs radio programme, he learned also how to make a good Martini cocktail.

After his ordination on 28 October 1956, he spent ten years as a curate in his home diocese of Portsmouth, before becoming private secretary to the Bishop of Portsmouth (and future Archbishop of Liverpool), Derek Worlock, a position he held for four years. In the 1970s Cardinal Cormac returned to Rome as rector of the English College. It was the period following the Second Vatican Council and, as he would recall, he found himself called on to "broker a peace between the people who want to change everything and the people who want to change nothing". His appointment as the third Bishop of Arundel and Brighton followed in 1977.

At his funeral Mass at Westminster Cathedral on 13 September, Archbishop George Stack spoke of the significance of his place of burial in the Cathedral in relation to Cardinal Cormac's experience of child abuse cases during his time as Bishop. This place was beneath the tenth station of the cross, the station where Jesus was stripped of his garments, and Cardinal Cormac, the Archbishop said, "knew well what it was like to have judgments questioned, decisions criticised, mistakes analysed. That 'stripping away' could easily have made him angry and cynical, causing him to retreat from the public arena. Yet he acknowledged his mistakes [and] learned a huge lesson and proceeded to establish the most robust safeguarding mechanism possible, a model for other institutions."

He commissioned Lord Nolan to chair an independent review on child protection in the Catholic Church in England and Wales. This was a landmark document and led to the establishment of an independent office (COPCA) to oversee the protection of children and vulnerable adults. In order to consolidate this work, he also commissioned a review, conducted by Baroness Cumberlege, which led to the establishment of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service and the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission.

In that same homily, Archbishop Stack added: "Cormac was a priest to his fingertips. He was comfortable in his own skin. He was aware of his failings, yet supremely confident in his calling." This confidence is something he was able to transmit to others. One of Cardinal Cormac's preferred mottos was "Nemo sibi judex" – nobody can be his own judge. Colleagues appreciated his willingness to listen to others when making decisions. His own perceptive nature, meanwhile, helped him to bring the best out of others.

Speaking at the Solemn Vespers at Westminster Cathedral on 12 September, Archbishop Bernard Longley said: "He could often see the potential for good that others failed to recognise in themselves." This chimes with the recollection of Archbishop Emeritus Patrick Kelly, who was a student with Cardinal Cormac in Rome and later served as his vice-president with the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. "He had a most gracious ability to encourage gifts wherever they were found," he says. "He could recognise what was possible for other people and encourage them to use their gifts to the full. That is a much stronger quality than being able to delegate."

Archbishop Emeritus Kelly recalls several visits made by Cardinal Cormac to Liverpool, including one Remembrance Sunday at which the latter laid a wreath on behalf of the Catholic community. Afterwards the pair stood beside the statue of Archbishop Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard on Hope Street and discussed ecumenical matters – a matter of real significance to Cardinal Cormac, underlined by his membership of and scholarly contributions to the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission.

Archbishop Emeritus Kelly remembers too the lighter touches of a man of holiness, humility and no little humour. "He was no mean musician, both pianist and singer, and when I think of him I remember a line from the Merchant of Venice. It's act five, scene one: 'The man that hath no music in himself ... The motions of his spirit are dull as night.' For me Cormac is the opposite of all that." There was a similar recollection from Cardinal Vincent Nichols. Speaking after Cardinal Cormac's death, he said his lasting memory of his predecessor would be of his "laughter and of his joy in life, music and sport and in company and in having a good chat. I'm sure heaven will be ringing with his laughter."