I interviewed Cardinal Vincent Nichols at the Boswell Book Festival on
Saturday. This was the festival's eighth year and it has gone from strength to strength, especially now that it is based in Dumfries House on the edge of Cumnock. As director of their sister festival, the Cumnock Tryst, I try to help out with contributions from my own portfolio of interests, and the cross-fertilisation is reciprocated; their director James Knox will interview an author of a major new book on music in the Tryst in October.
Vincent Nichols, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (the principal see
of the Catholic Church in England and Wales) startled everyone on Saturday
by claiming he had returned to Holy Ground (East Ayrshire). Was there a
local saint in Cumnock we hadn't heard about? Had there been apparitions and miracles in Auchinleck that had passed the locals by? No. He was there on pilgrimage to do homage as a supporter of Liverpool FC to the memory of the legendary Bill Shankly, who had grown up in the nearby miners' rows of
Glenbuck. Shankly has a special place in the hearts of Liverpool fans as the
club's most successful and gifted manager.
The Cardinal was in Cumnock principally to talk to me about his recent book
'Hope In Action.' There is nothing glib or bogusly optimistic about this little tome. Indeed, it begins in the abyss of the Holocaust and leads to some very dark places indeed – the sexual violence and abuse in and outside the Church, human trafficking and modern slavery, rape used as a weapon of
war, and the scourge of religious extremism.
For comfortable people like us, facing up to the realities of modern slavery, right under our noses, is a shock. 'That there are over 20 million people callously held in slavery in our world today is a mark of deep shame on the face of our human family,' the Cardinal writes, and tells us of his commission from Pope Francis to set up an organisation to do something proactive, and aggressively so, to counteract it. The result is the Santa Marta Group, an alliance of international police chiefs and bishops from around the world, working together with civil society towards ending the new slavery. Nuns and sisters in London work with the local police force, reportedly undercover, to rescue victims, care for them and bring justice to the perpetrators of this horrendous crime.
Nichols was also candid about the ongoing scandal of child sex abuse in
Catholic institutions, reminding us why the Church is constantly in the
headlines on this matter. Abuse of children is, first and foremost, a betrayal of trust, but abuse within the Church is also a betrayal of the trust of faith. Not only does it destroy the child's ability to trust in general, but is therefore 'a betrayal of the very essence of the purpose and character of the Church. It is a most profound wound.'
There was humility and sorrow in the Cardinal's words, and a palpable penitential angst. He knew that the Church had committed terrible wrongs, but was determined to make amends. And on the question of modern slavery, he voiced a fierce commitment to make a difference to the lives of the poor and powerless people affected. Our conversation was punctuated by musical excerpts of his choice. By the time we were listening to Allegri's great 'Miserere', a setting of Psalm 50, and one of the great treasures of 16th-century choral music from the Sistine Chapel, pleading for penance and mercy and the release of our souls from the stain of sin, the Cardinal's words were taking on revelatory significance. He seemed to touch the hearts of a very mixed audience. He will probably participate in the next conclave to choose a successor to Francis, a successor to Peter indeed, the next Pope.