Although the architecture of its cathedral is Neo-Byzantine, the affairs of the Archdiocese of Westminster have usually been conducted in a straightforward English manner, appropriate to its setting between Victoria Station and New Scotland Yard. So the 4.1 million Catholics in England and Wales were heartened to learn of the appointment of a straightforward former rugby player, Bishop Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, 67, as the new archbishop of Westminster. Described as "everyone’s favorite bishop" he has had plenty of practice during the 22 years he has been bishop of Arundel and Brighton, along England’s south coast.
Betting is a way of life in Britain, and the bookmakers will give odds on virtually anything. By the time they closed their books on the appointment, the odds on Murphy-O’Connor were 20 to 1. His status as a dark-horse changed in the two weeks before the appointment was announced. Whether his name was leaked is not known. What is known is that the rumor appeared to have aroused universal enthusiasm, according to The (London) Tablet. It is likely that the odds against his appointment were due to his age and the realization that it could be too good to be true. Well true it is, and this month Bishop Cormac, as he is called throughout his diocese, will move from the mild breezes of the south coast to ground zero in central London.
Cardinal Basil Hume, O.S.B., left behind a legacy of good will and accomplishment that made him one of the great bishops of the 20th century. Everything known about Bishop Cormac suggests that he is a most worthy successor, who will have a positive impact in his own right. The son of a doctor from Reading in Berkshire, he was educated by the Presentation Brothers, De La Salle Christian Brothers, and by the Jesuits at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He later returned to Rome as rector of the English College. One of his brothers is a canon of the Portsmouth Diocese, another brother is a doctor. An uncle was a priest who served his parishioners with discretion and courage on the Isle of Guernsey throughout the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. His family remembers the four-year-old Cormac, when asked what he wanted to be when be grew up, answering, "a doctor or pope."
In his first meeting with the press after his appointment, he showed great skill and discretion. Refusing to comment on the situation in Northern Ireland because the ongoing negotiations are so delicate, he signaled that he does not feel it necessary to have an immediately stated position on every possible issue. The national newspapers chose one item from his first statement as their lead for headlines. He was characterized, variously, as "attacking" and "declaring war" on consumerism. Not a bad thing, not at all. But that was hardly the central point of his message.
The theme of his statement was his episcopal motto, Gaudium et Spes, "Joy and Hope," the opening words of the Second Vatican Council’s "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modem World." He said he believes that "the two gifts of joy and hope are those most needed by people today." He is aware that there is much to be done, given the decline in religious practice and the inroads of secularism, but he noted that "collaboration has always been foremost in my ministry so far, and it will continue to be so in the years ahead." He hopes to do in Westminster what he has done in Arundel and Brighton, "teaching, and preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ and endeavoring to be a shepherd, a guide and a pastor of the people." He expects to continue the cooperation he has begun with his Anglican and Free Church colleagues, even though he believes that the Catholic community has a distinctive and vital role to play, which it will fulfill with generosity. With great optimism in the face of many challenges, he asserts that "in a strange way, these are good times to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, because his Good News and message is real, is true, and is able to set people free. I believe that people need to hear this voice more urgently than ever."
In his ministry, he has been called upon to act with discretion and courage particularly as the Catholic chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission since 1982. And as bishop he called upon his own Catholic people in 1995 to be generous in welcoming into the Catholic Church married clergymen of the Church of England, often together with their wives and children. At that time he showed special sensitivity to those who felt excluded from this welcome. Faithful himself to history and tradition, he encouraged all to a life of faith and service, "as the disciplines and practices of the Church permit."
The selection of bishops is an ever-sensitive issue. In this appointment, after wide consultation and with an understanding of the needs of the faithful, the mechanisms in place are seen to have worked to very wide satisfaction. And the English hierarchy has been immeasurably strengthened by it. So has the universal church.