Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor: A man of God who is going off Christmas

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This Christmas Eve Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor will celebrate midnight mass live on BBC1 – the most high-profile church service on television this festive season. It will be a highly significant occasion for the cardinal, the leader of Britain's 4.2 million Roman Catholics. For it will be the moment when he might finally step out of the shadows of his predecessor, the late Cardinal Basil Hume, the gentle monk who became one of the most respected religious leaders of his time.

The service in Westminster Cathedral will no doubt be a great liturgical occasion, full of pomp and ceremony, but it will be Murphy O'Connor's words that will be picked apart. Christmas is clearly a moment for a senior ecclesiastical figure to make his mark, and the last time this 68-year-old prelate made a major public statement, he shocked people with his pessimistic comments on Christianity. It was, said the cardinal, almost vanquished.

For five days that story ran and ran. Columnists, bishops and leader writers all joined in the The Great Cormac Debate. Then, six days after he spoke, the story died, on a day shocking enough to shake anyone's faith in humanity, let alone the existence of a benign divine being. But people's reaction to 11 September put those writing off Christianity in their place. The churches filled, prayers were said and candles were lit. God didn't seem vanquished after all.

So did it surprise the archbishop? Not at all, he says. "When I spoke about Christianity as a background to moral life being almost vanquished, I did not say that people did not yearn and have a sense of spirituality.

"After September 11, the shock of a terrible event and its aftermath did mean that people looked within themselves, and that residual belief that there is in God did find expression for very many people in prayer."

The archbishop – who became a cardinal in February, a year after his appointment as Archbishop of Westminster – is a conviction cleric. "Christianity is much more than our yearning for God, it's about God coming to us. When events like September 11 happen, they evoke in us a feeling of who will save us from war and from violence."

Being a cardinal seems to involve combining a doctor's bedside manner and a politician's ability to gladhand and be astute about what you say and how you say it. But there are some issues on which Murphy O'Connor is uncompromising. He is not, for instance, keen on Christmas, or at least the one we have now in Britain. "Christmas is becoming a pagan festival. You go to the shops and it's all about buy, buy, buy, although there is some good in it even in our secular world."

Cormac Murphy O'Connor, one of six children of Irish parents, started training for the priesthood at 18. Although he grew up in Britain, he acquired a soft Irish burr, which enhances the sense that this is a genial man beneath the scarlet. His studies took him to Rome, and from there he returned to Britain, eventually becoming bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

Later it emerged that, during that time, he failed to act when a priest became known to him as an abuser, and instead let the man move as a chaplain to Gatwick airport, where he again had access to children. The cardinal asked Lord Nolan to investigate, and his inquiry has led to the introduction of guidelines intended to prevent similar abuses happening.

One imagines that the high-minded Murphy O'Connor might have been taken aback by this furore. A Catholic bishop lives a rarefied life, and sitting in the lofty, elegant sitting room of Archbishop's House, he seems, for all his jolliness, an other-worldly figure. He is certainly unimpressed with much of modern life, with its more liberal approach to divorce and sex.

"We live in an instant society. People want to press a button and have instant solutions," he says, and it is a point of view that leads him to have sympathy for Muslim critics, unimpressed by our Western mores.

When the war on terrorism began, the Catholic Church was quick to urge caution, calling for military action to be a last resort, targeted and strictly limited to the prevention of terrorism. Now, one senses the cardinal is not altogether happy with the way the war is progressing.

"I don't believe in any violence and that's what I shall continue to preach. I think violence breeds violence. I'd never give carte blanche to any government, whether our own government or the US, in its actions. It is important to note that I have a different agenda: they have an agenda of a reaction to a terrible event, but my agenda is about justice, about peace, about aid to victims, of humanitarian aid to the poor and reconciliation; and although the two do interact, they are not the same."

Having a different agenda brings him into conflict with the Government on another issue as well, that of cloning, for the Government has introduced an emergency Bill allowing experimental cloning for scientific research.

"Cloning is unnecessary and it is wrong. Human life begins at the moment of conception, and from then the embryo is worthy of respect. To create it for other reasons in order to destroy it seems utterly disrespectful. Here we are in Britain quite blithely saying we can do this. It is reprehensible. We have got to realise that what is legal is not necessarily moral."