John Twisleton enjoys a fine spiritual memoir
AN ENGLISH SPRING
Cormac Murphy-O’Connor Bloomsbury Continuum, 240pp, hbk
978 1472913142, £20
‘Have we any right to take it strange, if, in this English land, the spring-time of the Church should turn out to be an English spring, an uncertain, anxious time of hope and fear, of joy and suffering – of bright promise and budding hopes, yet withal, of keen blasts, and cold showers, and sudden storms?’ With these words new convert John Henry Newman in 1852 addressed the first gathering of Roman Catholic bishops since the Reformation. This image of restoration is borrowed as heading for his autobiography by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, whose days like ours all have contained sunshine and storms.
It is an easy read, made so by his natural style which helps the reader feel at home with him, be it at a parish dance, breakfast with Prince Philip, with abandoned children in an orphanage or voting for a new Pope in the Sistine Chapel. He charts the sunshine of a Catholic family upbringing, the heady years of the Vatican Council and more recently the arrival of Pope Francis. Among the storms he charts the falling away of vocations and the sexual abuse crisis which is most shameful to him.
When the 18-year-old Cormac heading for seminary asks advice of his parish priest, he is told, ‘Young man, pray for perseverance’. The story of his life is an exercise of this gift. ‘I am very conscious of my sins and weaknesses, my mistakes and of my many failures to be braver and more sacrificial in my life as a priest and as a bishop,’ he writes. At the same time he chronicles encouragements he has received and given. I was struck by his ecumenical vision formed in his days as parish priest and extended into his national and international ministries. Another feature that struck me is his passion to promote small groups as instruments of renewal in his parishes and dioceses.
Writing of his own involvement in such groups he says, ‘I discovered why I as a priest needed lay people to teach me new insights into a living faith, just as they needed me as a priest to be a sign and guide to the realities of the Church in the midst of their world’. Drawing on insights serving lay empowerment of Vatican II theologian Yves Congar, the Cardinal sees himself on the same page as Nicky Gumbel’s Alpha with its encouragement to experience God through close Christian fellowship as prelude to sacramental encounter.
I found the book entertaining through its anecdotes of clerics and others who have formed the Church and world as we know it over the last half century. There is deep love for the Church alongside a critique that makes good sense of the way things are changing. ‘Both John XXIII and Benedict XVI were important transitional figures. John opened the way between the Church exemplified by Pius XII and the Church of the second Vatican Council and the reforming papacy of Paul VI. And we needed Benedict to allow us to draw breath after the monumental papacy of John Paul II, a grand performance that left the audience gasping and needing a little while to settle down before it would be ready for the appearance of another virtuoso’. The author hints such a performer has arrived in the person of Pope Francis.
If spring leads to summer the Cardinal sees the practical evangelistic focus of Francis, intent on empowering the bishops to be his mission collaborators, as brightness arriving. Cormac sees the new Pope fulfilling what Francis said prophetically at the Conclave before his election. ‘Thinking of the next pope, he must be a man who from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother who gains life from the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing’.
There are some fine descriptive passages: the arrival of future Pope John as Venice Patriarch in his gondola for High Mass in St Mark’s, that of an audience with Pius XII, a lunch party with Harold Macmillan and Muriel Spark, settling a furore in Rome caused by Archbishop Coggan’s outspoken call for intercommunion, joining Eric Kemp in praying for Margaret Thatcher after the Brighton bomb and taking Rowan Williams to kneel before the body of Pope John Paul II lying in state.
The Cardinal lists three enemies of ecumenism: suspicion, inertia and impatience. Though he describes the Church of England decision to ordain women ‘a terrible moment’ for him as Anglican–RC commission chairman, he keeps patience, encouraging the same in readers sharing his passion for visible unity. As he says optimistically, ‘after a period of the finger perhaps hovering over the ‘Pause’ button [of church revitalisation] Pope Francis is pressing ‘Play.’ So be it! ND