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‘Humane’ archbishop for Westminster

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The successor to the late Cardinal Basil Hume as archbishop of Westminster, England, is an ecumenist with a commitment to collaborative ministry.

At 67, Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, formerly of Arundel and Brighton diocese on the south coast of England, was initially regarded as too old to take over the most important appointment in the country. Press speculation over the eight months since Hume’s death in June 1999 had flipped promiscuously and inaccurately among a number of other names. The bookies gave odds on Murphy-O’Connor at only 20-1.

But on Feb. 6 Murphy-O’Connor was confidently proclaimed in a leak to the media to be the new man. He himself had the news of his appointment privately confirmed by the nuncio the following day. The news conference Feb. 15 made it official.

“I had rather hoped this would be an enormous surprise,” he said with disarming charm as he entered the room. But for those with a knowledge of the Catholic church in England and Wales (the two countries form a single bishops’ conference), there was no surprise in the appointment of Cormac (as everyone knows him -- the double-barrelled surname is too much of a mouthful).

In another appointment announced the same day, Vincent Nichols will be the new archbishop of Birmingham. Nichols had been an auxiliary under Hume.

Murphy-O’Connor is known as one of the most humane bishops in the country and is deeply respected. Like Hume he has imposing height and a capacity to speak to the heart about the love of God. Like Hume he is a good chairman, but unlike Hume he is a man who genuinely hears all voices and weaves together a consensus formula, rather than someone keen to have his own convictions win the day.

In part because of England’s ties with former colonies and in part because of Hume’s high profile, his successor will be seen as one of the most important figures in English-speaking Catholicism.

Murphy-O’Connor’s episcopal motto is Gaudium et Spes, which is also the Latin title of the document on the Church in the Modern World adopted at Vatican II. “I think the two gifts of joy and hope are those most needed by people today,” he said at the news conference.

One could say Murphy-O’Connor is not so much a leader from the front as a leader from the center. Center was also the position he played in rugby, both for the Portsmouth Rugby Club, where he was a parish priest and later secretary to the then bishop of Portsmouth, Derek Worlock (1966-70), and also for a team called Vatican 15 when he was rector of the English College in Rome (1971-77).

He has been 22 years in charge of the Arundel and Brighton diocese, where he has pushed ahead a number of projects of pastoral planning, including the Renew program and preparations for a diocesan synod. When asked what his weaknesses might be at Westminster, he answered honestly: “Sometimes I don’t follow things through as much as I should. Sometimes I’m inclined to go from one thing to another.”

His international experience is not confined to his period in Rome. He has been co-chair of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission since 1982. He resigned just before Christmas and was succeeded by Archbishop Alexander Brunett of Seattle, who will work with the Anglican co-chair Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in the United States. Colleagues on the commission speak of Murphy-O’Connor with enormous appreciation.

“He’s a humane, lovely person with a lot of sense,” said the Rev. John Muddiman, of Mansfield College Oxford, an Anglican member of the commission. “He’s entirely orthodox and devoted to the Holy Father, but he is also his own person, and he will be immediately attractive on television. He is a caring pastor and has an instant rapport with ordinary folk. In the evening he will sit down at the piano and sing old Irish songs.”

Anglican Archbishop George Carey is genuinely enthusiastic about the appointment of the man to whom he had awarded the first Lambeth doctorate in divinity given to a Roman Catholic bishop since the Reformation, in view of his work for the commission. The Rev. Bill Snelson, general secretary of Churches Together in England (the major ecumenical instrument for the country), said of Murphy-O’Connor, “His gracious sensitivity, courtesy and openness commend him to all denominations.”

Murphy-O’Connor will be installed as archbishop of Westminster March 22. He is likely to be elected president of the Episcopal Conference in November, unless the bishops allow the present chair, Archbishop Michael Bowen of Southwark -- who took over on Hume’s death -- to continue. Archbishops of Westminster have, to date, all been made cardinals within a few years. Rumors suggest that the next consistory for the appointment of new cardinals may be June 29.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000