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Cormac Murphy-O'Connor: "I made my choice and I’ve tried to live it through"

Cormac Murphy-O’Connor talks gay marriage, difficult times for the church, and the advantages of celibacy in an interview originally published in May 2015

I was a fairly sunny-natured teenager. I was the youngest of five boys and I had quite a protected childhood in a typical Irish family living in England. My father was a doctor and he had his surgery in the house, as well as five boys running about, so there was always bustle. It was a very happy childhood. There was quite a lot of music; I played the piano and we sang songs. Not just Irish ones, English ones too, like We’ll Meet Again.

I might tell my 16-year-old self to be a bit more broadminded. Before becoming a priest I’d like to have gone to university, studied English and languages and history. I’m a keen historian. Reading is very important, you should have a hinterland of good books you’ve read and can quote from. I could have read more history books, studied Shakespeare. I mainly read adventure books, like John Buchan. And I’d tell my teenage self to remember my parents and the constant sacrifices they made for us. I don’t think we boys thanked them enough, we took it all for granted.

I could have done more as a priest, been braver, more adventurous

Horace the poet said ‘Carpe Diem’. Seize the day. And I think I could have taken more risks in my life. When I was a young priest I went on the front on Southsea and Portsmouth and spoke out about the church like those speakers in Hyde Park. I got heckled and people just walked away. That was very good for me. I could have done more as a priest, been braver, more adventurous. I should have devised new ways to enable people to have some kind of vision about God. But I was too conformist.

When I was 16 I’d more or less decided I was going to be a priest. And I’ve never regretted it. But I could have done something else for the four years after I was 18. I had uncles who were priests and at our home in Reading we always entertained priests. They were very familiar. At quite an early age I thought it had to be a priest or a doctor like my father. They were the two obvious vocations. I think people have more choices these days.

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Did I realise completely all the sacrifices I’d have to make to be a priest? The answer is no. But after I was 15 I had seven years of preparations in Rome, time to think about it. I had to think seriously, could I undertake that sacrifice of not getting married and having a family? There were certainly moments when I had to think about it very carefully, put it that way. I don’t look back too often and think, what if I’d had a family? If I did that… I don’t think it’d be very fruitful. I made my choice and I’ve tried to live it through.

If I met the teenage Cormac now I think he’d come over as slightly naïve, immature but eager and outward looking. He was enthusiastic about friendship and life. I enjoyed my own friends but I always thought about the others, the people on the outskirts of the company, and tried to bring them in. I mustn’t exaggerate this but I think there was a certain generosity there. Have I lost that? Other people can judge that.

My teenage self would be shocked about the very difficult times the church has been through in his lifetime. We don’t need to go into them but they’re obviously there. I think the church always develops and it’s been through troubled times but its history has always been one of, if you like, death and resurrection. It’s gone through troubled times and come out again because the church is divine and it will always be there. And even if you go through bad times, of persecution or of sin, through the spirit of God there will be resurrection.

The church has gone through troubled times and come out again because it is divine and will always be there

I was about 40 when I had a sudden realisation that I could be a leader. I was a rector of a college in Rome and I was surrounded by about 60 students. They all looked so happy and enthusiastic. It was a lovely moment. There’s a bit in the scriptures that says, how good when brothers are in union with one another. I realised community is at the heart of everything. The big society begins with the small society.

I think I’m much less judgmental now. I start with people where they are, no matter who they are. I don’t make judgments. I think Pope Francis has emphasised the compassion of the church. When he sees refugees coming from Libya, what does he do – he gets on a plane and goes to meet them and express sympathy. If he meets an atheist he says, come and talk to me. No matter what their history, he’ll say, well what’s good and positive in your life? That’s the way he is and I think it’s very refreshing. Maybe I’ve developed more along those lines too.

Gay marriage, I don’t support it. Not because of anything. I think gay people must be treated with respect but I think marriage is so important that to change the name of marriage… I wasn’t happy with it, I must say, and I’m sad it’s gone through. I think there are such things as gay unions, which could be quite legitimate. But marriage is marriage and traditionally it’s between a man and a woman.

People look for meaning in their lives, what is the purpose in my life, where’s the hope that’s beyond this life?

I don’t believe that because a priest can’t marry or have children, he can’t empathise with married people with families. I was a parish priest for 10 years so I was able to empathise with many married people, the ups and downs of married life. Of course it’s possible the church could ordain married men. It’s always a possibility. But there are also advantages to celibacy, it gives you a freedom to be dedicated. In a way I think that’s more difficult for a married man, who has to think about his family first. A priest is freer.

People look for meaning in their lives, what is the purpose in my life, where’s the hope that’s beyond this life? People say we’re not religious any more but I don’t think that’s quite true. Most people are still searching for that meaning. A writer said recently I don’t believe in God but I miss him. I think there are a large number of agnostic people like that. The mystery of God adds something to their lives.

My mother died comparatively young. And my brother at 32, that was a terrible shock. I took comfort in the providence of God, this is what happens, and accepted it, and was grateful I knew them. I’ve always had good friends, people I can ring up, priests and lots of lay friends. I firmly believe that in a way beyond my understanding this world is not the end, there is a joy afterwards which we call heaven. I believe there will be a kind of reunion there. But don’t ask me to explain it.

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