After the death of his mentor Cardinal Hume, Vincent Nichols steered Westminster into the Jubilee Year.
Now, as Archbishop of Birmingham, he faces an exciting new challenge, he tells Luke Coppen
MONDAY, February 7. A phone rings in a
plush north London study. "Hello?" "Yes, hello," says the caller in a heavy Spanish accent. "Will you come over immediately?"
"Yes, I'm on my way."
"Don't tell anybody you are coming to see me."
"Don't worry, there's no one around here to tell."
An hour later, a man knocks on the door of a plush south London study.
"Come in," the Spanish voice says. "Take a seat."
The man takes his seat, gripped with tense expectation.
"The Holy Father wants you to be the Archbishop of Birmingham," the Nuncio says, sliding a letter embossed with the papal logo across the table. "You have some time to think about it. Tell me when you're ready."
Bishop Vincent Nichols didn't need long to make his decision. 'The underlying decision was simple," he explains, reclining in a chair in his wellappointed north London study. I offered myself to be a priest and was accepted and after that unless there is an outstanding reason, my disposition is to do what I'm asked.
"But I was a bit taken aback because while obviously there's been a lot of talk, I honestly tried to leave that to one side. And I thought there are many more experienced bishops who were more likely to receive such a major responsibility."
If Bishop Nichols is overawed by the appointment, it doesn't show. When we meet, ten days before his installation at Birmingham, he is in a relaxed and open mood. Dressed in Roman collar, clerical shirt and black tank top, he guides me amiably through the winding corridors of his Hendon residence. The house, which he will leave this week, has a kind of spartan elegance, which suggests he leads a simple lifestyle. A glimpse inside the fridge of his bare kitchen confirms this observation.
Lonely packs of margarine and jam sit on the skeletal racks. Today the Bishop has no milk and is living off mini packets of longlife milk found in airports and cafeterias. The spacious and light-filled office, where we finally settle, has a few more comforts and is clearly the room he spends most time in. As he settles, I ask him if he will be sad to leave it after almost a decade as Bishop in north London.
"It is a wrench," he says. "Eight or nine years ago I worked with the bishops' conference. It was very satisifying work, but it was in some aspects one step removed from normal routine of a priest. After those years I think I really was hungry for direct involvement in the pastoral life of the Church.
"So when I was given this opportunity of being Bishop in north London, 1 really was ready for it. There was nothitig else 1 wanted to do. I wanted to immerse Myself in the life of the parishes. These eight years have been wonderful years. I've had the chance to serve more than 50 parishes, many of them remarkable parishes, where the people and priests work together, for the most part, in quite profound trust. The priests are dedicated, hard-working, first-class men. I think going around these parishes I've never been able to take to heart the pessimism that tinges some comments on the life of the Church."
There is ample proof that this
respect and admiration is reciprocated by laity and priests alike. Last month over 750 people crammed into a church in Whetstone to say farewell to their auxiliary bishop. "The farewell Mass was very moving," Bishop Nichols recalls. "It was simple. It was focussed. There was a deep sense of people praying together and a wonderful thank you."
The Archbishop-elect claims he has not yet begun to get to grips with getting to know his vast new archdiocese, which includes north Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, the West Midlands and parts of Hereford and Worcester. But he has already laid plans to get to know the priests and people. After his installation, he will make a series of 10 weekly visits to the key areas of diocese, to meet local church leaders, priests and people. He believes this will give him a good grasp of the personalities and issues in the immense diocese, which he points out includes seven or eight major cities as well as large outlying areas.
Given the size and diversity of the diocese, does he have any fears about becoming its shepherd? "I have a sense that being ultimately responsible for a diocese inevitably brings with it the need to carry some things on my own," he says. "I expect to experience much more of a sense of being alone face to face with some issues. Now, I don't suppose for one minute that I won't receive generous and loyal support and co-operation. But I suspect it's just the nature of being in the end solely responsible that there are some decisions that I alone will have to make.
4 AT'S WHERE any
bishop has to give
first place to being close to the Lord, because in the end it's his business and what matters is that I try to do what in all sincerity I believe to be the will of the Lord and that's the only measure of success.
"At its heart it's a spiritual journey and it's striving for a greater and more inclusive trust in the Lord, combined with a very public office. There are many, many people who live their lives in a deep trust. What I think faces me more is combining seeking that trust but in a public manner."
Between the death of his mentor, Cardinal Basil Hume, and the announcement of the appointment of Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as his successor, Bishop Nichols was arguably the most prominent Catholic priest in England and Wales. During the interregnum, it was he who kept alive the late Cardinal's vision for the Jubilee Year and he who led Westminster Diocese across its threshold on Christmas Eve. But what, if anything, remains of that vision now?
"I think in Westminster Diocese the Jubilee Year has been overshadowed by the death of Cardinal Hume and by our waiting for a new archbishop," he admits. "Nevertheless the celebration of the millennium and of the beginning of the year 2000 was well marked and was well celebrated. I think many people are engaged in the Cardinal's initiative of trying to reach out to people who have stepped back from the faith. Some of the parishes will follow his invitation to mark Pentecost with a special celebration and are continuing the preparation for that."
Cardinal Hume's vision, he explains, consisted of several related ideas. "One obviously was that as a Church we should seek a new openness and awareness. We have to play our part in writing the history of this next hundred years. We need the gift of the Holy Spirit to really get into the marrow of every Christian and every Catholic, so that there's a kind of confidence and a joy, which more than anything is what makes it so attractive.
"But I think the Cardinal was also aware that in order to come to that point we have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves: Why have these people who have been baptised, who have been introduced into the life of the Catholic Church — why have they drifted away? And how can we as far possible be sensitive to the disappointment, frustration and often the sense of failure that peoplecarry with them?
"And underneath that, tdo and this is the first step of them all — is a need for us to become more aware of our own failings and shortcomings. It's no coincidence that this is what the Holy Father is trying to do in a very dramatic way. It chimes with the whole tradition of preaching the Gospel in this country."
He believes this year will prove crucial in the history of the Church in England and Wales; that it will be the moment when Catholics reach out, with evangelical confidence, to their fellow countrymen. "It's taken quite a while, especially for the Catholic Church in this country, to have that rootedness and self-confidence to speak out more," he says. "I don't think anyone should imagine we will be welcomed with open arms. But I do think there are sufficient straws in the wind to say there are the questions being asked in the hearts of so many people and with sensitivity and care the invitation of faith can be given. The consciousness of the joy and vitality that faith can bring is something that we really can offer to others, knowing that in doing so the time is right."
Before this new evangelical impulse can be released, he believes there needs to be a renewal of the sacraments. "I think that that whole sense of gathering to celebrate the transforming presence of Christ in visible and tangible moments is what gives Catholic life its coherence," he says.
A T THE HEART of
every sacrament is a personal encounter with Christ. In the way we celebrate sacraments there must always be space for that. Clearly there is a community element and there is the celebration of a people. But the sacraments are never only that. The celebrity in every sacrament is God. It is never the couple getting married. Never the silver jubilee. Never the first communion child. The real celebrity is the action of God through Christ, no matter what else we're celebrating."
He says that the first sacrament that needs to be renewed, in this penitential year, is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Confession. "We are not good at acknowledging our failure, accepting responsibility and finding a way of repairing the damage. Of course. seeking and granting forgiveness is a costly business. It took every drop of
our Lord's blood. And that is why this sacrament is important."
Bishop Nichols, who is in charge of Catholic education in England and Wales, believes that the renewal of the Church is tied to the renewal of Catholic schools. He recently presided over a national survey and a symposium on the expectations of classroom religious education. The results of that, which will emanate front the next bishops' conference, are likely to conclude that the RE in Catholic schools should be "primarily educational". But what, exactly, does this mean?
THAT the symposium was looking at was the place of classroom religious education in the Catholic school. Every single word in that phrase is important," he says. "We're talking about what goes on in the classroom in a school which is itself
a catechetical community. So every aspect of the school is geared to embodying the life of faith, offering the invitation of faith.
"Now, what is the complementary bit bring? In that catechetical context, classroom RE is the study of the truths of faith in a modem, systematic manner that fits into the life of the school. So I do not intend to use the word in a secular, value-free way. But I do mean to say that RE should engage the intellect of youngsters, so that they come to see. understand, examine and appropriate the contents of faith."
He calls for more support for the teachers who are entrusted with this weighty task. "It is right and proper to ask of classroom RE to what extent pupils are coming out of the classroom with an increased understanding of the Catholic Church. That's the primary question. If they don't go to Mass on Sunday then the question has to be addressed to many people. It's wrong to address the question solely to those who are teaching."
We must all, he argues, take responsibility for the renewal of faith within the Church and beyond it. "The starting point for faith is nearly always questions," he asserts. "How we respond to those questions will be the test. I think answers that are offered that are mechanical. or that don't have any personal resonance won't be convincing.
"One of the challenges facing our church is for us to grow in that personal grasp and integrity of faith, so that we have the persuasiveness of genuine witnesses and not just bearers of a message."