THE GOSPEL IN ACTION: Cathy Corcoran, Head of the CARDINAL HUME CENTRE
The Tablet Interview
They are busy preparing for Christmas at the Cardinal Hume Centre, which stands in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and its founder back in 1986, the late, much-missed Basil Hume. For weeks chief executive Cathy Corcoran has only been able to get into her bright, airy, upper-ground-floor office in the former convent that houses the centre by climbing over piles of gifts, donated by local schools, businesses, parishes and individuals.
“I know we are all meant to say that Christmas is magical, but it really is here. There are people bringing in food and presents, volunteers busy wrapping them, and children in our family centre getting very, very excited. We have three or four parties so that everyone gets a present. Some of them are kids who have never had a present before. What’s not to like?”
There is an easy-going sense of fun about Corcoran. She doesn’t take herself too seriously, and has no time for standing on her dignity. But she is both very serious and extremely passionate about what the centre does, and those it supports, as she approaches what will be her fifteenth Christmas at the helm.
First up there are 32 young homeless people who live here, usually for around a year until they have been helped to take the initial steps towards more independent and self-sustaining lives. A fair number of them are asylum seekers who have turned up, unaccompanied and friendless, at its front door.
Then there is the advice centre, open every day and offering support to those families without a roof over their head, or about to lose the one they’ve got because they can’t pay the rent. “Half an hour can make all the difference,” says Corcoran. As well as the lawyers, specialists, advice workers and volunteers, there is also a medical centre open to all homeless people.
Taken as a whole, it’s quite a place, with every corner full of those who most of us know about only because we see them on the television news, or walk past them in the streets. Here, by contrast, explains Corcoran, the door is always open. “Benedictine values guide all we do: the non-judgemental welcome; the offer of sanctuary; providing a safe space for people who may not have experienced that before.”
Watching over it all in the entrance hall is Basil Hume himself, the Benedictine abbot who made such an impact on English Catholicism – and on the English – during his 23 years as Archbishop of Westminster. “I hope he’d be pleased,” says Corcoran. She should know. She got closer to him than many, but we’ll come to that in a minute.
“A lot of good things have happened since I started,” she reflects, sitting among the unwrapped presents. “But now they are at risk because of the lack of any affordable housing, not just in London, but across the country. The statistics are frightening and we see the results day by day. We used to respond to homelessness by getting people into a home. Now that is impossible. We now focus on working further upstream, helping them not lose their home.”
Corcoran has spent almost all her career in church organisations: two in particular. First there was a quarter of a century at Cafod, starting in education and ending up as international director. “It was 1977 and I wrote to the then Cafod director, Robin Hood, and said he’d regret it for the rest of his life if he didn’t employ me, and that I’d sleep on his doorstep until I heard from him. I got a phone call saying would I come and join them. I didn’t have a single qualification for the job and I was the entire education department.”
She had moved on to run Cafod’s Africa desk by the time in October 1984 – in response to Michael Buerk’s harrowing BBC reports from northern Ethiopia of a “biblical famine” – that a phone call came from Archbishop’s House. Basil Hume wanted to go there to see what could be done to help. Corcoran was to accompany him.
“I remember one particular thing he said. ‘I don’t want to go as a famine tourist.’ So we had to agree that media coverage would be only one morning. The rest of the trip he could be ‘an ordinary pastor’, as he put it.
“When we went through the camps where people were mourning those who had died that morning, we could see the bodies. The cardinal just walked among these people. They had no idea who he was but they reacted to his presence. There was something palpable about him being there. They would just reach out to him. It was really powerful.” For those in the camps, for Corcoran, and for the cardinal himself.
“When we got back, he put a picture outside his study in Archbishop’s House of a young hungry Ethiopian boy he had met, with the quote, ‘You can’t look into the eyes of a starving child and remain the same’.”
In Corcoran’s case, that reveals itself in an anger against injustice that runs right through her, whether it be in Africa or outside her window in the capital of the sixth largest economy in the world.
“But it is positive anger,” she points out. “The sort of anger that triggers action. If you just get outraged, it leaves you bitter and negative. Yes, you see the dark side, doing what I do, but you can’t be hopeless. The people here in the centre come to us as their best hope, and they aren’t giving up. So we can’t. And there is something nearly every day here to celebrate.”
So what is today’s cause for celebration – aside from the coming of Christmas? “It is Henok,” she replies without a pause. “One of the unaccompanied child refugees, who comes from Eritrea, and arrived here, aged 16, two years ago with no English, no papers, and traumatised by his journey across the Mediterranean and Europe. He now speaks reasonable English, has friends, goes to college and we have got him the right to remain in this country for five years, so he has a future. He has just left us to go into locally supported housing.”
Leeds born and bred, and educated by nuns before heading off to university in Leicester, did Corcoran set out, I wonder, with a seamless plan to work in church organisations? “No. In fact, I went well away from the Church at university, like many young people do. But I don’t see what I do as working for the Church. I see it as being somewhere that I can take action. The Church has given me that opportunity.”
What effect, though, has working first at Cafod and now at the Cardinal Hume Centre had on her own faith? “It’s definitely renewed it. What has fed it most is the remarkable people I have met, both the famous ones like Basil Hume, and the nuns in the village in Africa that is 100 miles from the nearest town. When I came across these uncelebrated people across all the continents, I thought to myself, ‘What do these people have in common?’ It is their faith that keeps them going, and so I know this is a great thing to be part of. Genuinely. Something that feeds you. It’s the Gospel.”
She is still, she confesses, puzzled when people approach her and say, “Isn’t it wonderful what you do!” Why? Aren’t they just being complimentary? “But it is as if they don’t realise that all I am doing is being part of the Gospel. It is mainstream for the Church. What else would we be doing?”
Not all who want to talk to her are so positive. “Sometimes we are challenged on why we have so many people here in the centre from overseas. ‘Is that what the cardinal wanted?’ they ask. ‘Didn’t he want to help local homeless young people?’ But those we are helping are homeless too. We can’t start making distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving because they come from another country. I think the cardinal would be dead pleased, if he came here today, that we’ve opened our doors to destitute people in need, wherever they are from.”
Corcoran is touching on that wider anti-immigrant sentiment in this country at the moment as it heads towards Brexit. “Perhaps you have even more empathy if you’ve seen for yourself the situations the people who come here are fleeing from,” Corcoran muses, remembering her days with Cafod. “And, for me, absolute poverty is a good reason to flee. If you feel you can make a better life for you and your family if you leave, I don’t make judgments on that.”
Her greatest worry this Christmas season, though, is about wider attitudes that she witnesses developing in this country to the sort of poverty she encounters every day. “We don’t get shocked any more. We are normalising poverty and deprivation and destitution. And, at the same time, we are anti-immigrant. Together it’s a toxic mix.”