I only met Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor half a dozen times. As a TV journalist, I found him the perfect interviewee. When necessary – and that meant usually – he could speak in pithy soundbites. But when the occasion demanded, he could switch gear and cut loose that wonderful natural raconteur’s tongue. He was the third leg of the best broadcasting triumvirate I’ve worked with, the others being papal biographer Austen Ivereigh and events commentator Alastair Bruce. Telly is an ephemeral experience, but the way those three combined on the evening of the election of Pope Francis stays with me.
News of Cardinal Cormac’s death put me in mind of his cousin, the Dominican Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. I interviewed “Fr Jerry” in Jerusalem when I was posted there for a few months in the late 1990s. Like Cormac, he was a larger than life figure who exuded professorial calm. For decades he welcomed visitors to the École Biblique, just beyond the Old City’s walls, making a frequently hostile city that little bit kinder.
He was the firm friend of a TV journalist I hold in greater esteem than all others. They no longer make the mould that created the former BBC Middle East correspondent Keith Graves. The Independent’s Robert Fisk once called him “a wolf in wolf’s clothing”. I’m not entirely sure what Fisk meant by that, but you begin to get the picture. Keith, who retired about 10 years ago, was fearless in pursuit of a story and was not above acts of pugilism in pursuit of them. Watching Keith and Jerry present a television series for Sky called In the Footsteps of Jesus, it was hard to tell them apart: both bespectacled, bearded and big enough to be nightclub bouncers.
I heard a story about Fr Jerry’s early years in Ireland. It was said that he was close to marrying a young woman who, like him, was considering religious life. She became a nun and he a priest, but they corresponded regularly for decades.
A similar dilemma, I remember from an interview on BBC Radio 4, faced the writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce. The woman who would become his wife was thinking about taking vows. Instead she chose a different vocation and the couple went on to have seven children.
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