An Unlikely Cardinal from Scotland
Among his loves are the unborn, and countrymen who share his blue-collar roots
BY Cardinal Thomas Winning
April 18-24, 1999 Issue | Posted 4/18/99 at 2:00 PM
The second cardinal appointed in Scotland since the Reformation, he is called “the people's cardinal,” in part for his championing of workers’ rights. On Mother's Day 1997 he began an international aid program to help women contemplating abortion. So far, 107 mothers have been helped. He spoke with Register correspondent Paul Burnell in a wide-ranging interview.
Paul Burnell: You celebrated your golden jubilee last year. To what do you credit your vocation to the priesthood 50 years ago?
Cardinal Winning:I think, first of all, it was the good home I came from. The Church was everything to us. It was the focal point of our lives. Another influence was the example of the priests from our parish as I was growing up. They were admired for their care and concern for people and they were at the service of the parish. Yet, they were human beings who liked the things we liked, watched soccer matches and went to concerts. [They were] one with the people and enjoyed their company. There was a great community atmosphere in my parish.
You were 17 when you entered the seminary. How did your parents react? Were they very proud or were they surprised?
I seldom talked to them about it. It was quite an embarrassing thing, even in those days. Peer pressure was very strong. They were pleased, all right, and there was no doubt about that. I had a great association with the clergy of the parish, it was almost natural — to be expected, rather.
What was your dad's occupation?
He was working in a factory that produced steel pipes. He lost his job because the firm moved to England in 1925, the year before the general strike. It was a bad time. There was a lot of unemployment. … It made me more aware of the injustices to people. My father was on the dole [welfare] for a number of years.
You are known internationally for your pro-life initiative [begun on Mother's Day 1997].
Nothing I have ever done before has had such global repercussions as this initiative. [It] leads me to believe that it has truly touched a nerve. But it is important to say, first of all, that it is not an original idea. In fact, here in Glasgow, we have one organization called the Society of the Innocents which has been doing exactly the same thing for many years. I suppose that when a Church leader [becomes involved], the media gives [greater] coverage.
It got hostile coverage, which probably made it more attractive to people. The headlines called it “Cash for Babies” and accused [the program] of bribing women to have babies. Germaine Greer flattened that argument by saying you only bribe people to do what they do not want to do. You do not bribe people to do what they want to do. There are some people who claim that the girls who come to us have already made up their minds — that is untrue. Many of them are undecided.
Did it surprise you that you even got support from a well-known feminist like Greer?
Yes. I haven't read any of her books. She is a pioneer feminist and I wouldn't have regarded her as a natural ally. I think people change. She obviously thinks a lot about her philosophy of life and I am pleased to see that she is going along the same road for at least part of the way.
You recently marked the second anniversary of this pro-life initiative by taking a further step. Could you explain this?
What we really did was to emphasize a part of a speech that I made two years ago. We decided to highlight it because all the attention at that time was centered on helping women who were pregnant. In that same speech I also said that, if there were any victims of abortion who felt isolated and upset by this experience and [if] anybody had been involved in the abortion process, we were willing to help them. We felt two years later, especially on the verge of the millennium, we should remind people that help is available to them.
You speak of the women as “victims of abortion.” That is unusual language when so many people call it a “choice.”
Abortion is a very traumatic experience. Nobody would spontaneously desire to kill their baby unless they were under pressure — financial, social, professional [or] marital. It must lead some people to become suicidal.
The woman who has had an abortion is plagued with guilt. Some may be able to throw it off, but many of them are not able to. It ruins their lives and sometimes it ruins their physical [health]. With regard to doctors, sometimes the pressure is on them as well. They may be more able to cope, but nevertheless their future livelihoods can be at stake.
You were in the Scottish College in Rome where, in 1961, you were appointed as spiritual director. Was that a surprise?
It was a shock. I had an ulcer and it started to bleed and I passed out the night before I went away. Six weeks later, I had an operation. That was the kind of shock it was. The two things I had hoped would never come my way was, to be living alone — I thought I couldn't cope with that — and, to be a spiritual director, which I knew I could-n't cope with!
So, how did you cope with the responsibility?
I enjoyed it! It was good for me, too. It put me back into a quieter atmosphere. I went from being busy with pastoral work to spending most of my time looking after students, talking to them and helping them. And the Vatican Council was about to start. It was a tremendous opportunity to be right where the action was.
You were later made a bishop. Were you surprised by that decision?
After my ulcer I thought to myself, there's no point in thinking of anything else. The first thing that [could] happen if my name was mentioned is that somebody [might] say, “He's not in very good health, that guy. Remember the ulcer?” All I wanted to do was to be a parish priest. I'm not just saying that. I loved it.
The bishops had been experiencing difficulties with regard to the problems of dissolving marriages and they decided to have a national marriage tribunal because it would give them more resources. They asked me to be its first president. I had experience of canon law and the [Roman] Rota [the Church's central appellate court] which dealt with that in a big way. We started off in Glasgow. The archbishop had been my bishop in Motherwell and there was a rumor going round that they were going to appoint a coadjutor. I thought nothing of it, believing it would be a priest from the Glasgow Archdiocese. Well, Rome didn't give him a coadjutor bishop. They gave him an auxiliary — and that was me! Three years later, he retired and I was appointed archbishop.
How did you feel when, 20 years later, the Holy Father named you a cardinal?
It just took my breath away. In these countries, people don't usually meet cardinals. Even in Rome, as students, we would see them from a distance. The cardinal protector of the college would come once a year and the nearest you got to him was to kiss his ring. It has been extraordinary, the difference in deference people have shown me here in Scotland. I find it difficult. People have a great regard and a great [respect] which I have to live up to.
How do you manage to take a break from all of the responsibilities and relax?
I watched a great football match [soccer game] last night! Celtic won by five goals to one! That was on TV, but I go to the football matches quite often.
You are known also for your love of your home country. What does the forthcoming election for the first Scottish Parliament later this year mean to you?
I was just thinking about that today. We're trying to prepare a pastoral letter. Everybody in Scotland wants [this country] to be a better place. That is why they want devolution. But it has got to be worked at, hasn't it, over the coming years? I think it's a very exciting time — the analogy would be the Church at the time of Vatican II. In those days we were looking into this new future, this new historical expression of the Church. Now we're looking at a new historical expression of the Scottish nation. There's a lot to be proud of for us Scots in this century.
You're no stranger to controversy. Does the media attention bother you when you say something that hits the headlines?
I have thought about that a lot. They talk about priests realizing they are human beings. Well, a human being is sensitive to what people are saying.
A Church leader cannot be insensitive, but he has to say what he has to say. A bishop is a teacher and a shepherd and he has to protect the flock.
We have also got to lead the flock to rich pastures. I've always believed that the Gospel is not for the museum, it has to apply to the way people are living now and to the issues of the day.
Is there any saint who has inspired you down the years?
I have a great devotion to St. John Bosco for his work with kids. I used to pray that I wouldn't become a Salesian because I wouldn't have the same charism with them. Charles Borromeo appeals to me as a great role model — the saints are all role models in their own ways — but Charles Borromeo was a great bishop. He was a great pastoral man. He initiated the renewals in the Church after the Council of Trent. He hammered away at it himself and he didn't pass it off as a theory. I would regard my Trent as Vatican II and my life's work is to make the Vatican II Church a reality.
— Paul Burnell writes from England.
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