Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 09:08 UK

Cocktails, piano and prayers

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor
Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was made a cardinal in 2002

Friends of Cormac Murphy-O'Connor say he will be sorry to leave his job as Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, leader of one of the principal dioceses of Europe.

He will miss all that goes with it - the pomp and ceremony, automatic membership of the British "establishment" and the frequent opportunities to travel to Rome.

He can, however, reflect with a sense of triumph that he is the first Archbishop of Westminster since the post was created in Victorian times to leave alive.

As well as being the archbishop, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has been the leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales.

He has spoken not only for his own flock, estimated at six million Roman Catholics, but for the wider Christian population - often in partnership with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

He has fought a public and more private struggle against secularisation, the erosion of Catholic "life" values, the Iraq war, and what he sees as social injustice and inequality.

But he has also been mired in the issue of child abuse by priests, particularly within his own diocese.

Mixing cocktails

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor leaves the grandeur of Archbishop's House in London's Victoria with the deep affection of many of his flock.

However, several battles have been begun - rather than successfully completed - and considerable challenges remain for his successor, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols.

Some were surprised by Bishop Murphy-O'Connor's promotion to the Catholic Church's top job in England and Wales

The 6ft 4in (1.93cm) cardinal, with his gentle manner and ready smile, his hint of an Irish accent and his reputation for expertise in mixing cocktails (picked up in Rome) and as a pianist, will not be quickly forgotten.

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was born in Reading in 1932, one of the six children of an Irish-born doctor.

Priesthood was evidently in his blood. Two of his brothers, three uncles and three first cousins became priests in the Roman Catholic church.

His upbringing was devout. His father and mother went to Mass every day and the family met to say the rosary before surgery every evening.

However, the family name had arisen via a very earthly deal.

The cardinal's great-grandfather was an O'Connor whose partner in a drinks business was named Murphy.

The childless Mr Murphy eventually offered to bequeath his share of the company to Mr O'Connor's oldest son, on condition that he took the name Murphy-O'Connor.

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor joined his two brothers to study for seven years at the Venerable English College in Rome.

He was ordained in 1956, and appointed to Corpus Christi parish, Portsmouth. In 1963 he was transferred to the Sacred Heart parish, Fareham, as assistant and appointed diocesan director of vocations.

In the summer of 1966 he became private secretary and chaplain to the Catholic bishop of Portsmouth, Derek Worlock.

In September 1970, he was appointed parish priest of the Immaculate Conception parish, Portswood, Southampton.

His term as parish priest was brief: at the end of 1971 he returned to the Venerable English College in Rome as rector.

Pope's visit

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's most lasting post was as Bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor leaves his post with a sense of disappointment about the secular course set for society

He was there for 23 years after his consecration in 1977, gaining a reputation for warm relationships with his priests and protracted efforts to strengthen the diocese through building up small groups of worshippers.

As the local bishop, it fell to him to welcome Pope John Paul II to Britain at Gatwick Airport in 1982.

Some were surprised by Bishop Murphy-O'Connor's promotion to the Catholic Church's top job in England and Wales, feeling that he had showed himself to be too liberal for a conservative Vatican under John Paul II.

At the service to install him as Archbishop of Westminster in 2000, he reported seeing a stone in the Outer Hebrides that read "Pilgrim Cormac: he went beyond what was deemed possible".

Cardinal Basil Hume had established a strong national presence, and would be a hard act to follow.

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was also dogged by persistent allegations of his own failure to deal with cases of sex abuse by priests in his charge in Arundel and Brighton, just as the Church as a whole faced a deluge of criticism for the way it had handled the scandal.

The most damaging revelation was that Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor had moved one priest, Michael Hill, from one parish to another in the knowledge that he had abused children.

After an unsuccessful attempt to treat Mr Hill, he had been sent as a chaplain to Gatwick Airport, where he carried out further abuse.

Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor resisted calls for his resignation, and protested that, like other bishops, he had not understood the addictive nature of abusive behaviour, but had since acted decisively.

However, he is said to have been shaken by the prolonged attacks on him.

He appointed Lord Nolan to produce tough new guidelines to protect children and vulnerable adults against abuse, all of which the Church was to adopt.

Iraq war

Cormac Murphy-O'Connor - who was made a cardinal in February 2002 - captured public attention when he called for an end to the Act of Settlement, which forbids those in line to the throne from marrying a Roman Catholic.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor in 2004
The cardinal questioned the moral basis of the Iraq war in 2003

Shortly afterwards, he was invited to preach to the Queen at Sandringham.

During a long friendship with the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has tried to stem what both leaders saw as the erosion of Christian values in Britain.

The two archbishops united in 2003 to question the moral basis of the Iraq war, and went on to oppose the "aggressive secularism" they saw contained in some legislation, notably the new laws forbidding discrimination against homosexual people in the provision of goods and services.

Some of the most conspicuous casualties of the new law were Roman Catholic adoption agencies which had refused to place children with same-sex parents, largely on religious grounds.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has led what has been regarded as a liberal "province" of the Church in England and Wales.

There are relatively few policies to point to, and the cardinal has been a steadfast supporter of the stern Roman Catholic opposition to abortion, cloning and euthanasia.

On the other hand, he does believe that there is a strong case for the ordination as priests of married men.

Immigration has brought a flood of Catholic church-goers to the Westminster archdiocese, masking a decline in attendance among the indigenous flock.

But there has been no corresponding increase in priests and, despite the cardinal's initiative in reorganising the diocese so that lay people shoulder more of the burden of parish life, the shortage of clergy seems likely to intensify.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor leaves his post with a sense of disappointment about the secular course set for society, which he believes "has lost its sense of community and its sense of right and wrong".

He also recognised a problem his successor will have to grapple with as he tries to connect a prosperous, educated and febrile society with the Christian, Roman Catholic, message.

"We live in an instant society", he once said. "People want to press a button and have instant solutions."

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