Pope Francis’ announcement that he will give the red hat to Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster on 22 February has been warmly welcomed by Catholics and other Christians in England and Wales, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as by the British Government.
The 68 year old Nichols does not have ‘the
psychology of a prince”, he is a humble, open, profoundly spiritual man
with a sensitivity for the poor and disabled. He belongs to that first batch of bishops that are one of the good fruits of the Second Vatican Council.
“I am deeply moved” and “humbled” at being so
honored by the Pope and “I am very conscious of my own shortcomings”, he
said after hearing the news of his appointment on TV. He
considers his nomination as “a summons” to play a significant role “in
the service of the Holy See”, one that “enables” him to serve the Pope,
the Bishop of Rome, “in a direct and prolonged way.”
He sees his new role as a way of “bringing the
experience, and the gifts of the English experience, the experience of
Catholicism in this country, into the service of the Holy See” and, he
promised, “I’ll do my best”.
Benedict XVI appointed him Archbishop of
Westminster on 3 April 2009, in succession to Cardinal Cormac
Murphy-O’Connor who was the first archbishop to resign since the diocese
was established. The cardinal rejoiced on hearing the papal
announcement on January 12, and said: “Many people in this country have
been looking forward to this day. It is an honor, not only for Archbishop Nichols, but for all the Catholics in England and Wales”.
Archbishop Nichols will be the 11th successive
Archbishop of Westminster to become a cardinal since the restoration of
the Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales in 1850. The British
Ambassador to the Holy See, Noel Baker, welcomed the news and said this
“is without doubt of great significance for Britain” and it “also
recognizes the personal qualities in Vincent Nichols that the Pope has
emphasized since the start of his Pontificate.”
The Ambassador further highlighted the
significance of this designation by recalling in his blog that “there
have only been 50 English, Welsh and Scottish cardinals created since
the 12th century. They include one Pope (Adrian IV), men of Royal blood
(Henry Beaufort in the 15th century, Reginald Pole – who almost became
Pope – in the 16th century, and Henry Stuart, Cardinal York and brother
of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, in the 18th century), saints (St John
Fisher, the Blessed John Henry Newman), sinners, and great church and
Born in Crosby, Liverpool, on 8 November 1945, the
son of schoolteachers, Nichols discovered his vocation while playing
football. The city’s archbishop (later cardinal), John Carmel
Heenan, who was always good at spotting talent, decided to send him to
the Venerable English College in Rome, to study for the priesthood.
Nichols was not yet 18 years old when he arrived
in the eternal city, October 1963. He found a climate of great
excitement both in the college and the city: Paul VI had been elected
pope the previous June, and the second session of the Second Vatican
Council had just started.
The English and Welsh bishops resided
at the college throughout the Council and Nichols got to know many of
them, including Derek Worlock, the future archbishop of Liverpool,
already a highly influential figure in Church circles.
Nichols was then a keen footballer, a supporter of
Liverpool, a lover of music and fan of the Beatles. Gifted with an
outgoing personality, he soon made many friends at the college. But
above all else, he took God seriously and developed a deep spiritual
life that provided him with a solid foundation for his future ministry.
He already had a natural sensitivity for the poor and people with
disabilities, coupled with an inclusive rather than exclusive
disposition, and all this has developed even more over the past half
When the Second Vatican Council ended in December
1965, he was completing his philosophical studies but he was well aware
of what had taken place at that historic gathering, having listened to
talks and briefings given by some of the leading bishops and great
theologians that participated in it.
After gaining a licentiate in philosophy, he went
on to study theology at the Gregorian University for the next four
years in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, and was taught by
professors who had participated in the Council and were using the newly
approved council texts in hand. He was ordained priest in Rome for the
archdiocese of Liverpool on 21 December 1969, and soon after gained a
good licentiate in theology. He belongs to the first batch of bishops to
have been truly grounded in the Council’s teaching.
On his return to England in the summer of 1970,
Archbishop Beck of Liverpool sent him to work in a parish where he came
into direct contact with poverty and the lives of poorer people. While
there he studied and gained an MA degree in theology at Manchester
University in 1971. Later he went to Chicago and in 1975 obtained a
Master’s degree in Education at Loyola University.
In 1976, the ailing Paul VI made two appointments
that would greatly impact on Nichols future ministry: he named Derek
Worlock as archbishop of Liverpool, and George Basil Hume, a Benedictine
abbot, as archbishop of Westminster. These two leaders soon involved
Nichols in the life of the Church at national and international levels,
and his close collaboration with them over many years prepared him well
for his future role in the Church.
Archbishop Worlock appointed him vice-chancellor
of Liverpool archdiocese in 1979, and Director of the ‘Upholland
Northern Institute” a year later. He also involved him in events of
national importance, including the 1980 Pastoral Congress in Liverpool,
and invited him to accompany him and Hume to the 1980 Synod of Bishops
on the family.
On the eve of John Paul II’s visit to England in
May 1982, Cardinal Hume set up a small team under his own supervision to
prepare the key briefing for the pope before he arrived in the country,
and he chose Nichols to be a member of that team.
A year later,
Nichols was elected Secretary General of the Bishops Conference, a key
position that gave him a deep insight into the life of the national and
universal Church, and allowed him to exercise and further develop his
considerable political and administrative skills.
In those years too,
Archbishop Worlock involved Nichols in delicate ecumenical negotiations
that culminated when the Roman Catholic Church became a member of The
British Council of Churches (now called, “Churches Together In England”)
Nichols held the post of Secretary General until
1992 when, at Cardinal Hume’s request, John Paul II appointed him
auxiliary-bishop of Westminster. At 46, he was the youngest bishop in
England and one of the cardinal’s most trusted advisors. Together with
Hume he attended the Synod of Bishops on consecrated life, and for both
Oceania and Europe. He was also deeply involved in the drafting of the
1996 document on “The Common Good” which applied Catholic Social
Teaching to the situation in Britain.
In those years too in
collaboration with CAFOD (the English and Welsh branch of Caritas
Internationalis), he visited many places worldwide where issues of
justice and peace were in the forefront.
After Cardinal Hume’s death on 16 June 1999,
Nichols was elected administrator of the archdiocese, a post he held
until February 2000 when John Paul II appointed him archbishop of
Birmingham and named Murphy-O’Connor to Westminster.
His successes on the national stage in recent
years are well known, especially in getting the government to back down
on the question of Catholic Schools, and in getting the BBC TV to back
down over the Popetown series. A talented performer on the media and a
good public speaker, Nichols was commentator for the BBC at the funeral
of John Paul II in 2005, and at the conclave that elected Benedict XVI.
When Cardinal Murphy O’Connor resigned, Benedict
XVI chose Nichols to succeed him on 3 April 2009, and that same month
his brother bishops elected him by acclamation as President of the
Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, a post he still holds.
Since then he has represented that Church at major
national and international events, including the inauguration of Pope
Francis on March 2013. Over the past ten months he has met the pontiff
on at least two occasions, and accompanied the new Archbishop of
Canterbury, Justin Welby, to meet him in the Vatican on 14 June 2013.
Last December, the first Latin American Pope appointed Nichols to the
important Congregation for Bishops, and last Sunday choose him as one
of the two Europeans (outside the Roman Curia) to become a cardinal at
his first Consistory in February.
Faced with these dramatic changes in
his life, Archbishop Nichols turned to the Catholics of England and
Wales and asked them: “Please, pray for me!”