Most Rev Vincent Nichols to Be Head of English Catholics

By Ruth Gledhill
The Times
April 3, 2009

The Archbishop of Birmingham, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, will be named today as the next head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Archbishop Nichols, 63, an orthodox bishop who has become more conservative over the past few years, will succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as Archbishop of Westminster soon after Easter.

He was chosen personally by Pope Benedict XVI after he returned from his recent trip to Africa when the Congregation for Bishops failed to agree on a successor to the Cardinal, who will be the first Archbishop of Westminster not to die in office.

Ben Gurr

Archbishop Nichols will not be made a cardinal for several years because Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, 77, will retain that role, and the right until his 80th birthday to elect a new Pope.

The succession was so fraught, with intensive lobbying for different candidates, that the terna — or list of names — was sent back after the first one failed to pass muster. Archbishop Nichols's name was the only one on both lists.

He has been criticised for his alleged ambition, but his staff have always insisted that he is "ambitious only for God". One point always made of him is that he is a "thoroughly nice man". He is unafraid to be outspoken: in 2006, as chairman of the Catholic Education Service, he provoked deep anger among ministers when he forced the Education Secretary to back down over proposals to require faith schools to accept more pupils from non-faith backgrounds.

His equally hard-fought battle to prevent gay couples adopting children was not successful, but made a good impression in Rome and won him the respect of the 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales, of whom he is now expected to become the spiritual leader.

He also comes free of any problems that could embarrass the Pope, who is thought to be anxious to avoid more public relations disasters, such as a recent appointment of a bishop in Austria. The conservative chosen to be Bishop of Linz withdrew after worldwide criticism over his belief that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment for immorality.

Soon after Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor succeeded the late Cardinal Basil Hume in 2000, he was engulfed in controversy over allegations that he had failed to report a child-abuser priest, Michael Hill, to the police. Archbishop Nichols, like the Cardinal in his own subsequent ministry, has been among the strongest of bishops in dealing with historic allegations of child abuse by clergy.

Some thought that Archbishop Nichols might not be considered the best choice by Rome because he was closely identified with the more liberal oversight of Cardinal Hume. He was tipped as a successor to Cardinal Hume and was known to be disappointed that he did not get the job in 2000. But since moving to Birmingham he has won the respect of priests and congregations.

He is thought to have won the Pope's favour with his support for the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman, of whose work Benedict XVI has made a lifelong study.

Archbishop Nichols has good relations with other faiths and is photogenic and comfortable working with the media. When doing the commentary for the BBC's coverage of the funeral of John Paul II, he was asked by Huw Edwards to describe what was happening at a key moment. "No, Huw. This is an important part of the Mass — we will be quiet," he said.


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