LONDON (RNS) — Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, leader of the Catholic Church of England and Wales for nine years, died Friday (Sept. 1) after a battle with cancer, church authorities said.
“I am at peace and have no fear of what is to come,” he wrote in a message shortly before his death at age 85 to Cardinal Vincent Nichols, his successor. “I have received many blessings in my life, especially from my family and friends.”
Murphy-O’Connor’s career was marked by his efforts to improve relations between Catholics and Anglicans, but also tarnished by a scandal over his transfer of a priest who had confessed to the sexual abuse of boys.
The scandal engulfed his first years as archbishop of Westminster, to which he was appointed in 2000, making him Britain’s leading Catholic prelate. Critics accused him of failing to protect children in his previous Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, where he had served as bishop. Some called for his resignation.
In response, Murphy-O’Connor advocated for stronger protections for children across England and Wales, a move that helped assure his survival in his new post and which garnered him respect within and without the church.
Murphy-O’Connor was born in 1932, the son of a doctor. Although raised in Britain, he always retained a soft Irish burr inherited from his parents. He was educated by the Christian Brothers, and trained for the priesthood at the Venerable English College, in Rome, and studied at the Gregorian University.
Murphy-O’Connor was soon marked out for high office, becoming rector of the Venerable English College in 1971 before his appointment as bishop of Arundel and Brighton in 1977. When John Paul II in 1982 became the first reigning pope to visit Britain, Murphy-O’Connor was tasked to greet him because the airport where the pope arrived was in his diocese.
Murphy-O’Connor enjoyed some credit for the visit, considered a significant success for the church and the country, which had severed ties with Rome over the divorce of Henry VIII nearly 500 years before. Soon after the papal visit, Murphy-O’Connor was appointed as Catholic co-chairman of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. During his chairmanship, the commission produced significant documents on Mary, salvation, the Eucharist, and teaching authority.
In 2000, he was appointed archbishop of Westminster on the death of Cardinal Basil Hume and was made a cardinal by John Paul II in 2001. Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — later to become Pope Francis — was installed as cardinal that same day; from that moment the Englishman and Argentine became firm friends.
Soon after his appointment, Murphy-O’Connor was subjected to intense media scrutiny over revelations about a pedophile priest in his Arundel and Brighton diocese, when he was its bishop. Rather than report the priest to the police, he had moved him to a chaplaincy post at an airport, where Murphy-O’Connor thought he would come into less contact with children. The priest, Michael Hill, went on to reoffend.
Resisting calls to resign, Murphy-O’Connor joined efforts to reform child protection laws, working with Lord Michael Nolan, a widely respected judge on one of the highest courts in England and Wales. Reforms supported by the cardinal led to increased scrutiny of applicants for the priesthood, the creation of a central office to manage child protection in the church, and other changes that became models for other Catholic churches around the world.
During his time at Westminster, Murphy-O’Connor often clashed with politicians and others over issues such as the distribution of condoms to prevent AIDS and the adoption of children by same-sex couples, both of which he questioned. Despite these disagreements, former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered him a peerage, or place in the House of Lords. Rome refused to let the cardinal accept the offer.
In Rome, Murphy-O’Connor served on several Vatican commissions and councils, most notably the Congregation for Bishops, which involved him in the selection of bishops around the world, and the Vox Clara Committee, which oversaw the new translation of the Mass from Latin into English.
His approval of the translation, driven by conservative liturgists and which many deemed awkward, disappointed friends who considered Murphy-O’Connor to be a more progressive thinker. This occurred during the era of Benedict XVI, a pope beloved by conservative Catholics, and whom the cardinal served diligently.
By 2013, after Benedict resigned to become the first “pope emeritus,” Murphy-O’Connor was too old to vote for a new pope himself, but lobbied from the sidelines for his friend Bergoglio. He expressed joy at his election, and great hope that as Pope Francis, Bergoglio would bring collegiality to a church in need of reform.