Three hundred priests took their seats alongside dozens of bishops and senior politicians for the funeral of the former leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.
Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg joined former Irish president Mary McAleese at Westminster Cathedral for the poignant tribute to the 85-year-old cardinal who had retired from his role in 2009.
His death earlier this month after suffering from cancer, had prompted tributes from Pope Francis and former prime minister Tony Blair. While neither was able to attend yesterday’s service as they were together at the pontiff’s weekly general audience in Rome, the congregation was packed with leading figures from both religion and politics.
Among the 1,200 mourners, who filed in to the cathedral for the ticket-only mass, were representatives of other Christian churches, including the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, his predecessor Dr Rowan Williams and Baron Williams of Oystermouth, who all took part in a procession down the aisle as the funeral mass began.
Archbishop of Cardiff George Stack gave a homily describing the cardinal as a “priest to his fingertips” and “supremely confident in his calling”.
He told those gathered: “He was a gifted man who would have made a success of whatever career he chose.” In an apparent reference to a controversy faced by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor around how the church handled claims of child sex abuse, Archbishop Stack said his friend and fellow priest had learned “a huge lesson”.
While he was Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, the cardinal made the decision to move Father Michael Hill to the chaplaincy at Gatwick Airport in 1985, after he had been warned that the priest was a threat to children.
Hill was subsequently jailed after pleading guilty to the indecent assault of three boys, including the abuse of a teenager with learning difficulties who went to the airport’s chapel after missing a flight.
The cardinal later said he believed Hill would not have access to children and apologised on several occasions to the priest’s victims, saying he had made a “grave mistake” and that he had been “naive and ignorant” in his handling of allegations of sex abuse involving priests.
Archbishop Stack told mourners: “He acknowledged his mistakes. He made no excuses. He said the most difficult words of all, ‘I’m sorry’.
“He learned a huge lesson and proceeded to establish the most robust safeguarding mechanism possible.
“Humility and action were part of the robe that he wore.”
The Nolan report, which was commissioned by the cardinal in 2001 and drawn up by the retired Roman Catholic law lord, led to a stringent set of guidelines to prevent child abuse in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s nephew paid tribute to his devotion to family. Addressing the congregation Patrick Murphy-O’Connor, said: “Cormac was much-loved and he would do anything for his family.”
Following the service the cardinal was buried within a vault in the cathedral below the 10th station of the cross.