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Could you start maybe by telling me a bit about your childhood, your early life, how you started feeling this call to the priesthood?
My early experience of life was very much within a Catholic family, but I wouldn’t like to imply by that that I grew up in a pious household—I didn’t. I grew up in a household that was very robust in its Catholic faith, but also robust in its humanity. We did the same things that everybody else does, but underpinning it all was a fundamental identity that we were Catholics, that we were always part of a Catholic parish. Some of the organisations we joined were the Catholic ones, and in that part of Liverpool at that time that was fairly coherent, but not closed. If I could give a little example: When as a family we used to go on holiday—that was often across to the North Wales coast or into Wales mostly, sometimes other directions—when we got to the place where we were staying, the first thing my mother would do would be want to find where the Catholic church was. Now, it was partly because we were going to go on a Sunday, but it also worked like this: that the church would become the centre of her mental map, so we would find our directions by how the place we were going to visit related to the position of the Catholic church. And, in a way, that just illustrated how we lived our lives. We lived them with great openness, but the root centre of it all was our understanding of ourselves as Catholic, and therefore that’s the way we saw the world.
So in the household where I grew up priests were quite often visitors. There was one cousin of my mother’s who was going off to Pakistan to be a missionary priest with the Mill Hill Missionaries, and I remember as a probably ten-year-old helping him to get packed to go to Pakistan, and having to learn how to write RAWALPINDI in big red letters on crates. And inside one of the crates—I noticed very quickly—there was a red scooter, a mini motorbike. I thought: Is this how you get a motorbike, by becoming a priest? But there was a great deal of fun. There were a couple of young priests in the parish, and I just saw them as men who were living very happy lives and very fulfilled lives, and that’s what attracted me, I think, most of all.
So it was a normal, maybe even quite a prestigious thing, to become a priest?
Well, I wouldn’t say it was…It certainly was not treated as prestigious within my family. It was treated seriously, but it was also treated as something that was never going to have any stigma attached to it if it didn’t work out. I remember once saying to my mother, “I want to be a priest,” and she said: “Well, if that’s what works out, fine, but if it doesn’t, fine.” So there was not going to be any pressure on me to do something in order to please my parents, no.
How old were you when you first said that, do you remember?
Probably about fifteen, and then I went to speak with the priest in the parish just when I was beginning sixth form in the secondary school, and he said: “Oh, stay at home, don’t be doing anything about that now, wait until you’ve finished your A-levels.” Which I did, and then at that time I made a formal approach to the vocations director saying: this is what I would like to explore. So that meant by the next September I was on my way to the English College in Rome, a bit shellshocked, slowly dawning that I wouldn’t be coming home for three years. By that time I was just approaching eighteen, so I was young.
Going from Crosby to Rome at eighteen—that must have been quite a big culture shift for you.
It was. It was quite an adventure. I remember the journey out was made with a couple of other people probably of my age and, I think, two older students from the Venerable—from the English College in Rome—who had been home for their holiday after three years. So we went together as a small group by train, so it took a couple of days. We stayed overnight in Paris, I think, if I remember rightly. But I must admit to begin with, in the first few months in the English College, I only had a vague idea of what was going on. I was trying to get used to Italian, trying to get used to the role of Latin in the liturgy that we had in our pattern of prayer. But I grew, after a few months of pretty deep confusion, to enter into the life of the College, the life of the University. There was plenty of sport, which kept me going, a lot of international football competitions between the different colleges in Rome, and it became actually a very challenging and a very satisfying time.
Where were you located, then, around Vatican II?
I went out to Rome in October 1963, so that October, I think, was the second session of the Council. So in the English College during the sessions of the Council—which, if I remember rightly, went from October to December—we had all the Bishops of England and Wales staying in the College. We would see them every day. And during the meals we did not have conversation, that was not the pattern: there would always be something that was being read. Normally it was on that nice boundary between being very informative and slightly entertaining, so there would be interesting biographies, or books that were teaching us more about Rome. But during the Council, during the meals, the speeches made during the day in the Council meetings were read out to us, during the evening meal in particular. Now, these were abbreviated versions, but it did mean that as the next three years went by, we really did enter into the debates of the Council. It also meant that at that time around Rome there were meetings going on to discuss different themes. We could go to those. So I did have a very privileged insight into the working of the Council, and just how it changed even the way our bishops from England and Wales worked together in the course of those few years.
It must have been tremendously invigorating and almost disorienting, I would imagine.
It was very invigorating. I must admit, to begin with I didn’t really understand a lot of what was going on. But there were key moments which I remember very vividly. One particularly was around the Declaration on Religious Liberty, which nearly came to grief at the end of one session and then the following October was picked up again and was developed very well. So there was drama, there was tension, there were personalities in Rome around which attention gathered, and I think it helped us a great deal. My simple memories, for example, are that, in that first year I was there, bishops travelled each morning to the meeting of the Council in St Peter’s Basilica in a car in ones or twos, and they were dressed very grandly in full episcopal robes. By the third session, they were walking together as a group into the nearby square and getting on a bus. So that was my first understanding of this notion of collegiality: that actually bishops belong together in a college and together they were the successors of the apostles, together they had this great responsibility in the church, but they exercised it together, not as single princes.
So you were a very junior participant in…witness to…
A witness, not a participant, I would say.
I was thinking about that term because of the way you were formed in that atmosphere. And now as Cardinal-Archbishop being a very senior part of the Synod on the Family. Does it take you back—can you compare these two experiences?
Well, there’s a lot of things have passed in between, as well, but certainly that experience of those years, of those sessions of the Council and of its closing ceremonies, was very, very formative. But since then I’ve been privileged to assist in a number of Synods of Bishops, and the Synod of Bishops developed at the Second Vatican Council. So, for example, in the 1980 Synod on the Family I accompanied Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock. The links between that Synod and this Synod next October—this October—on the family are quite strong. It is fascinating now to be a participant in this, whereas I was a close observer and supporter of those two participants in 1980. I’ve been to a number of Synods in between. So the way a Synod works, the purpose of it, the dynamic of it, is something, I think, of which I have a bit of understanding.
And the sort of creative tension between what people outside of the process might hope or expect would happen, and the reality of what actually happens, to a degree, I imagine, is present.
I think that sense of public interest and expectation was high in 1980, because the family is a theme that includes everybody, and there were very sensitive issues at the time, some of which had been discussed in this country at the National Pastoral Congress in the summer of 1980. And there was again an expectation, for example, that the whole teaching of Humanae Vitae might be revisited and changed. You see some of those same things now as we approach this Synod in October. I remember Archbishop Worlock, in 1980, making a very impassioned speech about the way we understood people’s experience of divorce and remarriage. That too is an issue now. What Pope Francis is giving, I think, is a much more heartfelt permission, explicit permission, to participants in a Synod to speak very freely. It’s quite difficult managing a meeting of three-hundred-plus bishops that lasts for a month and that goes through different stages, and giving a decent account of what’s happening without making it into a media circus or a political debating chamber.
But Pope Francis has set a very, very clear line, in which he said at the end of the Synod last October, that this process is not a quasi-political debate with opposing views trying to hammer out some new solution, some new policy. This is a meeting that has its primary quality in a spiritual discerning of God’s will. Therefore the most important thing to which Synod fathers have to be attentive is, as he said, to the temptations into which they can fall. So at the end of that Synod last October, he gave this most remarkable address, I think one of the most remarkable papal addresses I’ve ever heard, in which he outlined five temptations of which we have to beware. And even more recently, even just in the last week, he’s been saying, on a reflection on the Acts of the Apostles, the first meeting in Jerusalem, that the church does not work by lobby groups. The church does not work by people trying to use—as he said—civic powers, civic authorities, to garner support for their point of view, trying to build up pressure points. He said: That is not the way the church works. But I’m afraid it’s the way the media works, and so we do have this tension between the expectations that a media creates—because the media works and understands the political processes working between opposing points of view—whereas this Synod, and the work of the church, is much more about discernment and prayer, and a reflective quality which is not served by oppositional-style interpretational tactics.
I suppose, as well, beyond the media, among laypeople who are trying to understand what’s happening, because you’re dealing with things that go to the most personal heart of people’s lived experience…People sort of look for signs of how the votes are going. And I remember I was very struck by what you said at the press conference on the Synod about deciding to vote on the paragraph about the welcome to LGBT Catholics, and the possibility that sometimes a bishop might vote for or against a paragraph, but not necessarily for a clearly discernible reason from the outside. It could be that you feel it doesn’t go far enough. That really struck me because, of course, that individual discernment is ideally not bringing a party line to things—considering every paragraph on its merits.
Yes. I think when the Synod comes to a point of indicating its support for a paragraph—a “proposition” as they like to put it—I think what’s important is that that’s understood in a wider context. The point of these Synods of Bishops is to assist the Holy Father in his teaching role in the church. So what will happen at the end of this Synod in October, I expect, is that the Synod Bishops will try and come to an expression of their views, and those views, that document, will be handed over to the Pope. He, in due course, will then issue a papal document which, like the last one, like The Joy of the Gospel, will open up a pathway for the church. So the conclusion of this Synod doesn’t come at the end of October. The conclusion of this Synod is the work that the Pope will do and the shape that the Pope gives to all that the Synod achieved. Now we see what Pope Francis is doing is projecting the work of this Synod into the Year of Mercy that is called for. So when the Synod ends in October, and we hand to the Holy Father what we believe to be the fruit of this prayerful discernment, that will not come out as a teaching document until we’re well into this Year of Mercy. I think that’s quite deliberate on the Holy Father’s part, because the key to so much that he says and does is the notion of God’s mercy, and God’s mercy is not something with which we’ve made ourselves very familiar. It is in my view easily misunderstood.
So, for example, you can see people wanting to contrast the mercy of God and the commandments of God, the mercy of God and the justice of God. To do that is to misunderstand both. But it’s very easy to do, because we tend to think of mercy as the way in which the justice of God might be applied. But, actually, mercy comes first. God’s first act of mercy towards me is creating me, and creating me with a purpose so that my life is not futile—lots of people think their lives probably are futile—but in God’s mercy he has created me for some definite purpose and with an ultimate destiny to be in his presence forever. That’s the first understanding of the mercy of God. Therefore the mercy of God is the way God’s love for me reaches me. Mercy is the burning desire of the Father’s heart that I attain the destiny for which he has created me.
Now, the commandments are part of God’s mercy, because the commandments sketch for me how I should progress on that pathway to my fulfilment. Everything that Pope Francis is doing asks us to step back and start again from this perspective of God’s mercy. God’s mercy comes first, and only when we’ve got that clear will we begin to read properly the role of the commandments, the struggle of people to keep them, the response that we make when we all fail, the response that God makes when we fail, and the response that we make to each other when we fail. If we abandon that perspective of mercy, then, as he often says, we just become appliers of law and that’s not a proper understanding of the call of Christ.
And that’s very firmly rooted, isn’t it, in the everyday praxis of the parish priest, which is to accompany people.
Yes. That’s right.
It came to me, reading Missioners, that you have this focus on practicalities and mercy and mission for the parish priest, and of course the particular identity of the diocesan priest; who it’s too easy, particularly for people like me who work on an order like the Jesuits, to say simply—a negative definition—is not a religious priest.
You’re right. Let me tell you, one of the first parishes to which I was appointed had been a Benedictine parish in the middle of Liverpool. It was a Benedictine parish when I think a lot of the ship owners and captains lived there. When they moved, I think the Benedictines moved as well. But I met people in the flats that now filled the parish who said quite straightforwardly: “Oh, I’ve not been to church since the real priests left.” And they meant the Benedictines. And so diocesan priests somehow were kind of second best.
But there is an important difference, and to me the difference lies in, if you like, the basic orientation of the different pathways of priesthood. Those who join religious orders, their first context is the order, the congregation to which they belong and the charism that it gives and the bonds that it set up, and therefore within that they’re free to move in all sorts of places. They can go to this frontier or that endeavour, and they can change, you know, an order can change its focus. A diocesan priest is attached to the land. A diocesan priest is the one who has the soil in his fingernails, because this piece of land, this territory, is the vineyard that he’s been entrusted with. Therefore the more the priest gets to know the quality of the soil, the kind of grapes that grow, how fruit is produced in these circumstances, the more wise he becomes as a parish priest. To walk the streets of a parish with a parish priest is like walking with a farmer who knows his crops, and he knows his soil, and he knows the temperature, and he knows how this field is good for that, and that one is good for the other. And it’s a wonderful experience, actually, to walk as a bishop with a priest round his parish.
The first parish I went to had an old priest who’d been in the parish for forty-five years. I was a young priest in Liverpool, and I went to St. John’s in Kirkdale, and Father Hopkins walked me around the parish. And he just talked to me about the people who lived in the different houses—he’d been there for ages. Then we came around one corner, and there was a patch of wasteland, and on the brick wall on the far side of the wasteland in six-foot letters was written: GOD BLESS FATHER HOPKINS. So I thought: I wonder why he brought me round this way? But it just said that he was in the bricks and the muck of the parish. As Archbishop in Birmingham, I remember one priest who’d been in his parish a long time. We stood at the door together and he greeted everybody by name. He could tell me the background of every family. He was their priest. And that’s the great joy of being a diocesan priest.
Did you feel always that that’s what you were called to? You didn’t contemplate any of the religious orders?
No, no. No, no. That’s me.
One final question. You obviously have a very strong sense of your identity as a diocesan priest, and of course, as I understand it, you remain a deacon, you remain a priest, these things don’t go away. And you’re also a member of the hierarchy, the senior member of the hierarchy in England and Wales. How do you live these two vocations together?
Well, you know, when as a bishop I ordain a priest, it’s a bit of a traditional thing, but I always wear a dalmatic as well as a chasuble. The dalmatic is the vestment of the deacon. It reminds me that a priest is always also a deacon, and the bishop is always also a priest and a deacon. So being a priest does not remove one from the diaconate, and being a bishop does not remove one from the priesthood. It’s one sacrament of Holy Orders, and therefore there is, in that sense, no separation. That’s why it’s not unusual to see that, when a bishop finishes his years of office as an Ordinary, he wants to go back and live in a parish and exercise that direct pastoral priesthood that never left him, but he’s been called to exercise a different ministry. So I always think of myself first of all as a priest—that doesn’t go away, and I couldn’t imagine it ever going away—and I would hope one day that might be what I’ll be able to do.
The way a bishop works depends entirely on the way his priests work, and it depends on the relationship between the bishop and the priests, which in every diocese is a bit like family relationships. Sometimes they’re very good, sometimes they go through a difficult patch, but fundamentally we are committed to each other totally. I don’t sense any real separation within myself between being a bishop or a priest, nor within the ministry of the bishop. I don’t feel a separation from the priest at all.