Cardinal Murphy-O´Connor on the State of the Church in Britain

Invitation from the Queen Is One Sign of Hope

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LONDON, DEC. 25, 2001 ( Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O´Connor takes his high-profile job in stride.

It has taken him nearly two years to shake off the description of «Cardinal Basil Hume´s successor» and make his mark, the Telegraph newspaper said in an article based on an interview with the archbishop of Westminster. The cardinal is now recognized as a national religious leader, the paper said.

«I have settled in,» he says. «At 67, I thought it was about time for me to go and then they pushed me up here. … I am doing what I can.»

Next month he will be a guest of Queen Elizabeth at the Sandringham royal country residence and will preach at a service for the Royal Family. It is the first time that a Catholic archbishop has stayed with the monarch since the Reformation and indicates a formal end to the historic hostility between the Crown and Catholic Church.

The cardinal is pleased to be asked about it. «I think it reflects a change in ecumenical relations,» he said. «It shows the queen is closer to Roman Catholicism and it is significant that this is happening at the start of her golden jubilee year.»

He made front-page news in September when he told priests that Christianity was «nearly vanquished» in Britain. The Christian backdrop to social, economic and political decisions had disappeared, he said. His words hit a nerve. That was five days before Sept. 11.

Like other denominations, the Catholic Church enjoyed bigger congregations after the attacks. «I would never predict a revival but I would not be surprised,» he says.

«We are becoming a world without a father as we lose the consciousness of faith,» the cardinal observes. «In losing God from our lives, we are losing someone who loves us, accepts us and forgives us. Without him, where do we turn?»

The cardinal has not supported the military action in Afghanistan and his statement on Sept 25 said military force should only be used as «a last resort.» The war, he believes, will affect «relations between North and South, poor and rich, Islam and the West for a very long time.»

One of his New Year projects is to transform the way the Church evangelizes. He wants people to get out of their cozy parishes and spread the Gospel. A dose of «joy and hope,» he believes, would solve the Church´s big worries, such as falling Mass attendance and the lack of priests in training.

He says: «The answer is not a big campaign to recruit priests. There needs to be a renewal of the whole Catholic community. We could abolish celibacy tomorrow and I do not think it would make any difference to the number of vocations.»

As bishop of Arundel and Brighton for 22 years, he had time to play the piano, walk on the South Downs and to play golf. Now there is little time for relaxing, and his baby grand piano lies untouched under a dust sheet.

Much of his energy is taken up with introducing reforms which he believes will strengthen the Church. His gentle manner belies a reforming zeal.

Under his leadership, a young public-relations professional has been imported to manage media relations. It is the first time that a layman has done the job.

He has also abolished the five areas of Westminster Diocese and centralized its management. A diocesewide computer system which connects every priest to an Internet site is on its way. Next year he will close one or more of the seven seminaries and review their curriculum.

But by far the biggest and most difficult reform has been to the Church´s child protection strategy. The cardinal commissioned Lord Nolan to scrutinize the Catholic Church after a string of child abuse scandals.

He came back with 83 recommendations and the bishops have accepted them all. The cardinal has set up a national office for child protection in Birmingham, and police checks on all Church workers and priests are now in place.

He said: «I want the Roman Catholic Church to be a model for child protection. I am confident that from now on any negligence in the past will never be repeated.

«Child abuse is very shameful thing and the actions of a tiny number of priests have reflected on the whole Church. Yes, we are damaged and I want us to be restored.»

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