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A model of unfailing kindness

by Bishop John Arnold

Who would have guessed that, at a brief and cordial meeting with Fr Murphy-O’Connor in 1976, in Rome, I would have later spent eight years working closely with him in the Diocese of Westminster? At our first meeting I was finishing legal studies and hoping to try my vocation to religious life. I was warmly welcomed as a guest but chances of our having much association in the future would have then seemed unlikely. We were on rather different journeys within the Church.

My own journey took me from religious life to ordination as a priest in the Diocese of Westminster and then to a parish in North London. Fr Murphy-O’Connor, who would have expected to return to a parish in his Diocese of Portsmouth, instead returned to Arundel and Brighton to become bishop of the diocese and then, in 2000, he was translated to Westminster to be Archbishop and then Cardinal.

It was no doubt a difficult transition for him to have made. Cardinal Hume had been much-loved and his short but aggressive final illness had left many people feeling orphaned and disorientated. His manner had been very warm and easy going. It is never easy to step into the shoes of someone who had been so well respected and in the role of Cardinal Archbishop for so long. But Cardinal Cormac took up the reins generously and with determination.

The call from Archbishop’s House on 5th April 2001 was unexpected but the meeting the following day was to be life-changing. The Cardinal’s appointment was simple and direct. I was to become one of the Vicars General to assist in the administration of the diocese. The next eight years were, in many ways, filled with new experiences and challenges. Throughout that time I must say that I always felt the encouragement and the trust of the Cardinal, together with his readiness to give advice or direction when I felt the need for guidance. It was through his thoughts and vision that we promoted pastoral initiatives throughout the diocese, while developing a sense that the offices and staff at the centre of the diocese were there to be ‘central services’ to the parishes and their communities.

One of Cardinal Cormac’s many strengths was his ability to identify people to whom he could delegate tasks. The role of Cardinal Archbishop brings an impossible diversity of responsibilities which would swamp and overwhelm the most able person and there needs to be trustful collaboration. Cardinal Cormac chose well and always collaborated effectively with those to whom he had entrusted particular projects. A notable example of this was his request to Lord Nolan to undertake an independent and objective study of safeguarding in the Church. The whole scandal of clergy abuse had shocked us all, priests and lay people, and it needed a legal mind to offer a forensic and practical framework for safeguarding. It was duly followed by the review of the Cumberlege Commission five years later which brought further adaptations and adjustments to procedures, setting a standard that others have sought to follow.

I think it is true to say that, while Cardinal Cormac had a clear sense of his own priorities for promoting and developing the Church in England and Wales, he was always willing to listen to those with alternative views and those who might bring new insights or initiatives. He believed that discussion and the sharing of experience and expertise brought wisdom to the eventual decisions.

A further unexpected shock came for me in November 2005 when I was appointed an auxiliary bishop for the diocese. In all the uncertainty of those bewildering times I must say that the Cardinal was always there to encourage and help in whatever way he could as I attempted to adjust to a very different way of living my priesthood. He made the transition a great deal easier than it might otherwise have been. I certainly learned a great deal from him and he left me with the best of examples of unfailing kindness and welcome to others which I still try to imitate.

In all the sadness of learning of his final illness I was so pleased for the calm and acceptance that he manifested in his last days. May he rest in peace, rewarded for his goodness as a priest, bishop and pastor of souls.