Saturday, 1 September 2012

Interview with Cardinal Cormac - Part 1

Cardinal Cormac preaching at the grotto in Lourdes

In this first part of an exclusive interview with Cardinal Cormac,  Peter Burholt, is in conversation with him on life at Westminster.

The afternoon was sunny and a tree-lined Duke’s Avenue in Chiswick was looking at its best. Finding Number 7 was not too difficult – this renovated Victorian detached house was every bit the residence of an important person. Which member of staff would answer the door bell? Would they be in uniform? No such formality – it was Cardinal Cormac himself. With a cheery smile and outstretched hand it was ‘You’re welcome’ and then we were inside, settling down to Sister Damian’s mugs of tea and cake.

Let’s go back to 15 February 2000, when you were informed you were to become the 10th Archbishop of Westminster. Did Pope John Paul II send you a letter or a text, or how did it happen?

Easing back in his chair, Cardinal Cormac reflected for a while on that life-changing event 12 years ago.

The circumstances were really a little strange. There had been an article in The Sunday Times in the previous week, saying that I was the front-runner for the post. Then, the day before I officially knew, a concerned Mgr Conry (now your Bishop, but then Director of the Catholic Media Office) rang me to ask if the story was true, as his office was being badgered by the Press for information. ‘No, I do not know what is going on’ was my honest reply.

Then, the next day, the Papal Nuncio asked me to go and see him without delay. Even at that point I was unaware of what was to come. In fact, I wondered what I had done wrong!

So, as instructed, I took myself to Wimbledon. In broken English he said, ‘The story is out. His Holiness wants you to be the next Archbishop of Westminster.’ What will make you smile is that, as his accent was extremely heavy, I left wondering or not if I was to be the next archbishop and had I heard the right message!

You were installed at Westminster Cathedral on 22 March 2000. What did you do in between being told and your actual installation? Was it a question of getting a quick holiday via

Goodness me no! It was quite the opposite. I spent the time fulfilling my duties in A&B and then attending to my move and the arrangements for the installation. Yes, I was sad to leave the Diocese I had come to love and then there was my dog, Daniel, whom I also had to leave - but I could not imagine seeing the next Archbishop walking his dog around the streets of Westminster.

Did you encounter any problems with the move?

I do remember one particular issue and that was to do with my support team in Westminster. I learnt that the nuns, who had so competently supported my predecessor Cardinal Hume, were leaving. This left me with a problem, but I was fortunate to meet Sr. Mary Thomas, Superior of the Augustinian Sisters at St. George’s Retreat and asked her if she would help me and she very kindly provided three Sisters to work with me at Archbishop’s House.  I was very blessed with marvellous help. 

Sister Damian, who you have just met, is a Sister of Mercy from Midhurst. She has put up with me since my early days in A&B and again I have been very fortunate to have such a wonderful secretary for very many years.

Was it straight to Rome after the announcement? Did the Vatican give you the ‘Good Archbishop’s Guide’ and send you to its training school?

As the memories came flooding back, a wry smile came across the Cardinal’s face and his response was positive.

Absolutely none of those! It was in at the deep end, sink or swim.

Being archbishop is quite different to the role I had played as bishop. You will need to understand that I was now President of the Bishops’ Conference and now had to comment in the media on so many matters.. In an instance, I was propelled in front of the media to be spokes-person on all matters Catholic. Fortunately, I remembered many aspects of Cardinal Hume’s life and then I put my own team in place. In these early days, people were very helpful and tolerant at Archbishop’s House.

From the start, to put it mildly, the Press gave you a rough ride. Did you expect this to happen?

You are quite correct. I did have a battering for the first six months. I must admit that I had made mistakes in the past – don’t we all? The Press picked these up, now that my profile had quickly accelerated into national public life. It was not a good time for me, but with support from colleagues, this period passed and we all learnt from the experience.

In your first year you were awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey. How important was this to you?

Yes, this was very important to me as it was in recognition of my involvement in Christian unity. The Vatican Council had allowed us to open up dialogues which were never previously approved of – we were able to try and understand other Faiths. I became the joint chairman of ARCIC, a committee to study matters of common interest to Anglicans and Catholics.

You were elected an Honorary Bencher of the Inner Temple and in August 2001 you received the Freedom of the City of London. Do these ‘non-Catholic’ positions cause you any conflicts with your Faith?

No, they do not – it is very nice to have these accolades and I do know that now I am a Freeman I can drive my sheep freely across London Bridge into the City!

In complete contrast, in 2001 an independent review, which you had instigated in the previous year, issued its final report on child protection in the Catholic Church.

The Nolan Review was a very comprehensive piece of work and I made sure that the panel was made up by people who were not necessarily Catholic. I asked Lord Nolan to carry out the review in 6 months, a short time for such an important subject – I wanted to see a quick result to this sensitive issue.

Lord Nolan addressed the bishops of England and Wales and his strong recommendations for the Safeguarding of children were accepted unanimously by all our bishops.

This was an important stage in our development and it set out the way in which we would protect children and vulnerable adults. We are now seen as being leaders on this subject and I even had congratulations from the Vatican on the work we had undertaken.

You have the reputation among the hierarchy of the Church of England as being an excellent host and that you can mix a mean cocktail.

I do like being a host, although I’m not sure about the cocktail story. On reflection, this may be a relic from my time at the English College in Rome, where I learnt the recipe of a particularly strong concoction!

On 20 February 2001 you were created a member of the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II. What is the size of the College membership? Can you vote for the election of a new pope after the age of 80 years?

I did feel privileged to become a cardinal and join this august group from around the world.

The College consists of up to 160 cardinals. Only members under the age of 80 can vote, although cardinals above that age can still join in the debate before the actual Conclave.

Although the ratio of Italian cardinals in the College has dropped from 56% in 1903 to under 17% today, did you feel like a fish out of water when you first joined?

I did know quite a few of the cardinals already, although I have one vivid memory of the occasion. Immediately I was elected a cardinal I was taken to the Vatican, where I sat in a large room and all the visitors came up to kiss my ring and have my blessing. This was a very humbling and memorable occasion. They made me feel very welcome.

At this time you were assigned the titular church of the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. What was that all about? Didn’t the Pope know that you had another place to look after back home?

This is a historical and symbolic appointment. All cardinals are assigned a church in Rome because, from the earliest days of the Church, the priests of Rome chose the pope.

I do make visits occasionally to this beautiful church and, shortly, I will be at Vespers with the Westminster choir. I think his Holiness was well aware of my other duties back home!

Has your membership of the Pontifical Council for Culture heightened your interest in history and art?

I have always had a great interest in art and music through my family, so this appointment was a natural extension to the things I have always appreciated. The Council has a lot to do with how we engage in culture.

You asked about my earlier life with respect to the arts and history. My mother was the one who encouraged me and my 3 brothers. However, I can remember my mother insisting that we speak French at the dinner table. My brothers and I struggled, and we normally ended up in much laughter.

As a cardinal do you have celebrity status wherever you go?

I did get treated as a celebrity at airports, so I sympathise with all those passengers who have to queue endlessly at passport control. Apart from the formal occasions, there is not much else.

Have you ever been into (what was called during your time in office) the Cardinal Wolsey pub behind Westminster Cathedral, in the hope you might get a complimentary pint?

I did go in once, but no one made the offer!

 The year 2002 was quite a ‘royal’ 12 months for you. The Queen invited you to Sandringham to give the first homily to an English monarch since 1680. Given it was 322 years since the monarchy issued the last invite, were you nervous at the prospect?

Cardinal Cormac stopped at this point to reflect on one significant aspect of this question.

Goodness me, was that so. I never realised at the time that the last invitation was so long ago!

Yes, I remember being quite nervous. My homily was about the Annunciation, which I related to Christianity and to service of others.  I could see Prince Phillip, but the Queen was behind me, so I could not gauge her reaction.

What was it like being a house guest at Sandringham?

I stayed for 2 nights and the atmosphere was quite informal. There were 3 other house guests.  I remember coming into the room and seeing Her Majesty doing a jigsaw puzzle – quite a natural sight.  We were ushered upstairs to dress for dinner. We then had a round of pre-dinner drinks, which I think was champagne.

The next day after the service we all had a long walk, ending with lunch in a large house somewhere on the estate. I enjoyed the informality of that walk. Then the same dinner routine was repeated that evening.

On this visit to Sandringham I suggested to the Queen that she should go to Ireland. As you know, this visit became a great success and I was glad I was able to write and congratulate her.  The Queen wrote me a very gracious letter in reply.

The Queen has referred to you as ‘our cardinal’. How did that come about?

I think this is an accolade she had also given to my predecessor. However, I do get on well with her and Prince Philip. She came to lunch at Archbishop’s House a fortnight before I left office.

Recently, I stood in for Archbishop Nichols at a gathering organised by the Queen for all religious leaders, so I do see her every so often.

In the same year you were the first cardinal to read prayers at an English Royal Funeral service since 1509 – it was for the Queen Mother. Did you know her?

Yes, I first met her at dinner in Arundel Castle and then we met on several occasions after that. She was good fun and I remember one dinner which ended with some rousing songs!

Turning to Pope John Paul’s last days, did you get to see him before he went to the Lord?

At my last audience with the Holy Father he was very unwell and in a wheelchair. We talked about Cardinal Newman and I enquired as to why he had not been beatified. The Pope’s response was typical of the man. With a grin he said ‘You English are not good at miracles’.

Still, time has gone by and the beatification has been accomplished.

What happened on the occasion of the Pope’s funeral?

As soon as I heard the news it was Mass at Westminster Cathedral and I then had to get to Rome as quickly as possible.

The Conclave was momentous – there was the funeral itself and endless lunches and dinners, where the debate about the election of the future pope informally started. It was attended by 115 cardinals. Everything was run by ballot – even the rooms we had in the Vatican were allocated by ballot.

Although it took us 2 days to elect Pope Benedict, there is no time limit. Absolutely no one knows who has voted for which candidate, although when the shortlist is published after the first round the names are known by the Electors.  We all trust each other that we will not vote for ourselves! No electronics, it is all by a paper vote.

Reporter Andrew Brown asked if you had NOT voted for Pope Benedict. You appeared to be rather bristly on this subject.

Even if I wanted to, I am not allowed to tell anyone how I voted. Pope Benedict and I go back many years, so I knew him quite well.

Next came a significant moment in your life. On 3 April 2009 you announced your intention to retire as Archbishop of Westminster. This was the first time in Church history since the Reformation that a cardinal had retired ‘in post’. What surrounded this significant event?

More to come in a further blog post

1 comment:

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