Mourning the pope
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Posted April 6, 2005 at 6:23 p.m. CDT

'How do you live Christ in today's secular culture?'
Murphy-O'Connor asks questions before conclave opens

By John L. Allen Jr.

It seems the cardinals have informally decided that after the pope's funeral on Friday, it would be inappropriate for them to talk to the press. If so, it would mean that the comments emerging this week may be the last we hear, at least from some of them, before the April 18 conclave begins.

In that spirit, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Westminster held a sit-down session with a number of print journalists on Wednesday at the English College. Genial and soft-spoken, Murphy-O'Connor announced that he would not be commenting on the conclave or candidates to be the next pope. He also warned reporters that this was more or less their last shot, as he did not intend to organize similar sessions next week.

"There's a feeling, a sense, that the cardinals in the period before the conclave should not be giving interviews all around the place," Murphy-O'Connor said. "Nothing is written in stone, but there's a general feeling that the period after the funeral should be a period of quiet preparation" and prayer. "I would have thought that the media would understand that," he said.

He called the election of the next pope a "very great responsibility." He also said that he knew most of the cardinals, especially since he serves on a number of congregations.

As for John Paul's legacy, Murphy-O'Connor said he forged "a different way in which the Petrine ministry is in service, not just to the church but also to the world." The papacy under John Paul, he said, achieved a new role, influence, and moral voice. In part, he said, this is due to John Paul's charisma, in part due to modern communications, but also to his conception of the role of the pope.

On the subject of charisma, O'Connor was asked why it didn't seem to extend to the church -- after all, on John Paul's watch, at least in the developed world, vocations and Mass attendance in many places continued to decline.

"There may have been some slight exaggerations in people's reactions to him," Murphy-O'Connor said, "but he lived a dedicated life of service. I don't think they were just bowing down to a charismatic character."

Further, Murphy-O'Connor said, he was not in favor of "quick fixes" in the Catholic faith. "I don't expect people to be immediately converted. But this pope's witness has made people think."

Murphy-O'Connor then struck a very pastoral note.

"The fact that they're not going to church doesn't mean they're not Catholic, or Christian, he said.

Yet Murphy-O'Connor acknowledged that he couldn't just laugh off the point of the question.

"How do you live Christ in today's secular culture?" he asked. "How you do touch people where they itch? The Catholic church has to find new ways of doing that."

Someone asked Murphy-O'Connor if reform of the Roman curia would be an issue.

"It's not easy to be a member of the curia," he said. "Somebody has to do the work. Even a bishop has to rely on people to carry out his job." He also said that nobody from Rome has breathed down his neck in 27 years as a bishop.

Still, he gently conceded that the shape of the curia in the future will depend to some extent on "the papal stance," meaning, presumably, the attitude of the next pope.

Murphy-O'Connor said that he considered the church's relationship with Islam to be a "very important issue."

"In some parts of the Islamic world, it's not possible to dialogue because of a rigidity of belief. But in other parts of the Islamic world, it is possible, including Britain. That's very important. I would hope that the way of dialogue would increase, making inroads into the other parts of Islam. This needs to be done with urgency for the sake of peace in our world. The whole of Western society has to deal with the Islamic world, in terms of economics, aid, etc."

In response to a question, Murphy-O'Connor conceded that the relationship requires "some reciprocity."

"If we're going to trade with you, you must treat minorities with respect," he said. "That's fair enough."

Interestingly, Murphy-O'Connor did not express immediate assent to the idea of the pope's canonization.

"I'm always a bit afraid of canonizing someone ahead of time," he said. "The church is wise to wait. But he was a great pope, there's no question of that."

O'Connor said that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, will attend Friday's funeral, along with Prince Charles and Tony Blair, the first time that the archbishop, the prime minister and the heir to the throne have been present at a papal funeral. O'Connor said it marked a change in English culture, in which the Catholic church is now "recognized and understood" in a new way.

Finally, the cardinal added one further insight into his conclave preparations. He said he's planning on bringing several books into the Casa Santa Marta, including a couple of a pious nature, and then maybe some Bronte or Jane Austen.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

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