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
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
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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
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.