Archbishop Leo Cushley talks of Keith O’Brien row

Archbishop Leo Cushley is campaigning to make Margaret Sinclair a saint. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Archbishop Leo Cushley is campaigning to make Margaret Sinclair a saint. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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THE photograph on Archbishop Leo Cushley’s mobile phone is of a man wrapped up warm against the February chill, more than half way up a Munro, blue sky overhead and a carpet of pure crisp snow underfoot.

Beyond him waits the summit of Ben Lawers, 4000ft above Loch Tay and the tenth highest Munro in Scotland, its white peak stretching up and up towards the heavens.

The scenery is, naturally, stunning. Just a smear of white fluffy cloud hovering in the brilliant sky. Nothing, surely, to worry about.

The man in the photograph is, explains Archbishop Leo Cushley with a smile, “the other me”.

His floor-skimming black robes, his red skull cap and the heavy silver cross around his neck exchanged for hiker’s boots and sweater, he looks like any other hardy Munro bagger. That it’s been ages since he last found time to head uphill had no impact – the legs, he grins, coped.

He has, of course, been far too busy for much hillwalking since he took over the archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh 18 months ago.

Back then, that fluffy cloud on the horizon snapped during Monday’s hike, was more like all the world’s clouds gathered together in one giant dark omnistorm of chaos and stress.

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, much loved and much respected, was gone in a puff of seedy sex allegations that rocked the Catholic Church in Scotland to its foundations.

And in his place, parachuted in straight from Rome, the solid, safe and very diplomatic hands of 53-year-old Airdrieonian Leo Cushley.

He arrived to an archdiocese wounded and aching, torn between deep affection for the cardinal who had led them for years and questioning where next, who would guide them and, of course, how could it have ever happened?

It’s fair to say since he arrived, there has been little time to sit back and admire the scenery.

“Have I been busy?” the Archbishop laughs as he settles into the deep leather couch in a back room of St Patrick’s in the Cowgate. “Is the Pope a Catholic?”

First there was the task of spiriting his predecessor south. Controversially for some, the cardinal who wanted to retire to Dunbar remains exiled in the north of England, unlikely to return to Scotland for the foreseeable future.

Then there was the launch of an independent inquiry into the Church’s handling of sex abuse allegations, an issue which could well darken the skies above his diocese when its report is published in a few months’ time.

In between has been a massive “getting to know you” operation, one that is about to step up a gear when the Archbishop sets off to visit his flock with a view to starting a major restructuring plan that will see – no doubt reluctantly – parishes merge and church buildings either close or scale down.

Suddenly that single puffy white ball of cloud in a dazzling blue sky seems just a little bit more vulnerable to a sudden stormy blast.

With that turbulent background in mind, the cynical may suggest his move to highlight the cause of the Venerable Margaret Sinclair – a humble Edinburgh factory girl whose short life was one of faith, devotion and dedication – and raise the possibility of beatification and maybe sainthood has perfect timing.

After all, if ever the Catholic Church in Scotland needed some good news from on high, it’s now.

“This is something from way back when,” insists the Archbishop, firmly dismissing any suggestion that it could be an attempt to inject a feel-good factor into a church still regrouping after the nightmare of scandal. “It needed fresh attention paid to it. The cause of Margaret Sinclair is unfinished business.”

Her tomb is near where he is sitting, in the heart of St Patrick’s. Margaret, born in Blackfriars Street and said by some to have performed small miracles in response to their pleas, rests within her three coffins, one lead, one zinc and one wood, topped with a marble slab that can conveniently slide away should the need arise.

It is a place of pilgrimage for many, a candlelit focal point for those who call for her help in their most challenging of moments.

“I discovered she has people devoted to her in the Low Countries, in England and in Ireland. With the miracle of the ‘interweb’,” he smiles, “I think we will find a lot more all over the place.”

As the Archbishop learned more of Margaret, saw the Cowgate tenements and cobbled streets she called home and learned of those whose lives she touched, he became determined to follow through what had begun just a few years after she died, aged just 25.

Discussions with a colleague in Rome made him even more certain.

“He said if she had been Italian, she would have been beatified 40 years ago,” he recalls. “That prompted me to think seriously to look into how to attract fresh attention to the cause, to encourage people to pray for her beatification.”

If it happened, it would certainly raise the spirits within his diocese after what he concedes has been a challenging spell.

“We are all weak and simple human beings,” he says quietly, reflecting on the allegations of sexual impropriety and hypocrisy that clouded the final days of Cardinal O’Brien’s time at the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

“Anyone who doesn’t think that is deceiving themselves. We all have our problems. The Church is about forgiveness.

“I have a job to do to help the people heal and move on. That is what I want to concentrate on.”

An independent commission was appointed by the Church in the wake of a string of sex-related scandals. There is no legal obligation for any of its recommendations to be formally adopted but that it exists at all, he says, indicates a willingness to examine the issues.

“It’s important that it’s done properly,” he adds.

Cardinal O’Brien remains out of sight in Northumberland, a mutually agreed solution to an uncomfortable situation. Yet he’s not entirely out of mind.

Lines of communication are open, says the Archbishop.

“Occasionally we have a conversation whenever he or I feel the necessity to be in touch. And he has friends and colleagues who keep in touch and see how he is getting on. He has had the usual health issues of an old man. But as far as I can tell he is well enough and happy enough.”

Less happy, though, will be the Church faithful he is preparing to meet on a tour of the archdiocese to talk through a restructuring of the way their churches operate. With talk of new groups of parishes, 
mergers and church buildings being closed, he may need all the people skills and charm he learned during his previous role with the Church’s diplomatic service in Rome.

“I have a limited number of clergy compared to the number of people who come to mass on Sunday,” he explains, pointing out that ageing priests and a new drive to recruit fresh blood is another issue.

“It seemed not only necessary but quite urgent that we look at this problem honestly and deal with it in a rational way.”

As worshippers at St Paul’s in Muirhouse recently found, that could mean losing their place of worship and a merger with another congregation. Others might move from full parish status to smaller Chapels of Ease. It’s almost certain it will mean some stormy weather ahead.

“We are all attached to the place where we were baptised or our grandmother helped to buy the altar. I’ve been there – the church where I was ordained is now a car park,” he says.

“It’s not going to be easy in some places. I want to encourage people to be courageous and charitable and magnanimous and to do what is best for the local Catholic communities so we all move together.”

Modern Margaret

A fresh campaign aimed at having the Venerable Margaret Sinclair first declared “blessed”, and then confirmed as a saint began last month.

Born in Blackfriars Street in the Old Town, she became a nun known as Sister Mary Francis of the Five Wounds but died in 1925, aged 25. Soon after she became known for aiding the poor and underprivileged through prayer.

She could become Scotland’s first saint since St John Ogilvie, the martyr who was tortured and hanged in Glasgow and canonised in 1976.

Margaret Sinclair, says the Archbishop, is a figure that a new generation of Catholics may well identify with more than a 16th-century figure.

“She is someone who lived in the modern world. She knew what the modern world looked like, she is not from the Middle Ages,” he says.

“She is very real to me when I read about her life and see the streets she walked in. There’s a real human connection.”