In appointing Archbishop Vincent Nichols to the College of Cardinals, Pope Francis has followed a convention that goes back to 1850, by which the Archbishop of Westminster is regarded as senior bishop and hence leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
He more or less automatically became president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales shortly after his appointment to Westminster in 2009. Nevertheless, as the list of other cardinals announced by the Pope on Sunday shows, there is nothing inevitable about such things under this papacy. A number of archbishops of important sees in Europe and the United States have been rather conspicuously passed over. The nomination of Archbishop Nichols was something of an exception, and so something of a tribute.
In an accompanying letter, the Pope has asked the cardinal-designates to avoid unseemly celebrations, in contrast to the air of triumphalism which has greeted such appointments in the past – though not, in living memory, in England. The Archbishop of Westminster will not find this disappointing – he is a protégé of his predecessor Cardinal Hume, a man noted for humility and informality, who ordained him the youngest bishop in England and Wales. Behind Archbishop Nichols can also be seen the influence of Archbishop Worlock of Liverpool, who promoted his appointment as the bishops’ conference’s general secretary in 1984.
From Cardinal Hume he will have seen how the Catholic Church can play a respected role in the life of the nation, despite the influence of secularism and multiculturalism of which Archbishop Nichols has a good understanding. People will reject finger-wagging, but will be receptive to calm, wisdom founded on deep reflection and prayer. Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks was a good model here.
From his background in Liverpool but particularly from Archbishop Worlock, the new cardinal will have appreciated the contribution Catholic Social Teaching can make to many of the issues current in society, not least those concerning welfare, immigration and the moral basis of business.
The title “Cardinal” will by itself gain him more media attention, but he has always had an easy manner on television which projects him as humane and likeable. And from all those who have influenced him, as well as his own term as chairman of a key ecumenical body in England and Wales, Archbishop Nichols understands that ecumenical progress depends not just on ideas but also on good relationships.
He is not, nor ever likely to be, completely comfortable at the heart of the English Establishment, from which he will no doubt want to maintain a critical distance. Nor is he radical on matters theological, and he has yet to show his hand on major issues facing the Church on marriage and divorce. He will want to see which way the wind is blowing.
But Pope Francis will find in his new English cardinal a staunch supporter of the new papal style, who will in turn look to Francis for inspiration and encouragement. This appointment is good news for the Church in England and Wales, good news for the nation, good for the papacy and good for the Catholic Church at large.
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