Birmingham’s charismatic Archbishop, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, has been appointed head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Alison Jones hears how the city has helped shape him and how he combines traditional values with a modern approach.
It was a day of double celebration for the Catholic faithful gathered outside St Chad’s Cathedral in the spring sunshine.
Not only was it Palm Sunday, marking the triumphal entry into Jerusalem of Jesus, but it was also the first time the parishioners were really seeing the Most Rev Vincent Nichols since it was announced that he was to be the next Archbishop of Westminster.
It was, on both counts, a day of celebration overshadowed by a sense of impending separation.
In a small speech of congratulation following the service, Canon Pat Browne said that Birmingham’s loss, where the 63-year-old Liverpudlian has been Archbishop for nine years, would be softened by the “tremendous gain” of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Shortly before the service Archbishop Nichols, admitted that he would miss the city that has been his home for the better part of a decade, praising both the “wonderful group of priests across the diocese” and acknowledging the “real growing partnership” forged with other faith leaders since September 2001.
“The experience of being in Birmingham is very positive and really enjoyable.
“I was able to say the other day that while I find this prospect daunting I know that many people are praying for me and that includes Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs in the city. That is a remarkable gift I have received from this inter-faith work in Birmingham.”
Though he has said that he is “not here to make friends” when it comes to doing what he believes it is right and faithful to the Catholic Church, it would be hard not to warm to his modest and humorous nature.
He admits to being surprised at his appointment even though he had been considered something of a front runner for the role thanks to both his steady rise through the ranks – he was made an auxiliary bishop in the Westminster Archdiocese in 1992, the youngest British Bishop at the time – and also his strength as a media performer.
“To be honest, my preoccupation since Cardinal Cormac (Murphy-O’Connor) announced his retirement was just to stay focused on being Archbishop of Birmingham and take no notice of the speculation.
“I think there are a whole number of Bishops in this country who are suitable for the post.
“It is probably to do with age, experience and an ability to articulate Catholic faith in a public culture which isn’t always very sympathetic .”
He has already experienced some of the more negative aspects of having a heightened media profile in the few days since the announcement was made.
“I have heard things that have quite astonished me. Somebody on the radio today categorically stated that when Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was named to succeed
Cardinal Hume, I was very disappointed. I haven’t the slightest idea on what basis they make such a statement. It wasn’t true. I was 54 or something like that and it was extremely unlikely that I was even considered as a serious candidate.” However, he accepts that media exposure, not all of it flattering, is an unavoidable part of any public office.
“Media has its role in society, which I recognise and respect. All I ask for is accurate and intelligent and reasonably full reporting. I think if there is a weakness in the British media it’s that it is very selective, a little bit tending towards the superficial.”
He also deflected accusations that he is “ambitious” and a “career churchman”, maintaining that he had only ever followed the advice of his father that “when it comes to the church seek nothing and refuse nothing”
“I have tried to live by that advice. If I am asked to do something I will do it and I give it my best shot.
“People say I am ambitious for ecclesiastical office. I don’t think it is true. I am very ambitious to do my best for the church but I wouldn’t mind whether it was as a parish priest in Toxteth or working in any other role.
“I have happily, joyfully, given my life to the mission of the church, whatever I am asked to do.”
The seeds of his vocation were sown in childhood. He grew up in Liverpool, and remains an ardent Liverpool supporter, where priests were not only a visible and vital part of the community but also of his own family. When I was about nine or ten my mother’s cousin, a Father Francis O’Leary, was setting off on his mission which was to serve in Pakistan.
In his house there were all these packing cases and in one was a red motorbike and I thought to myself ‘well this is one way of getting a motorbike’.”
However, in his teens, not even the thought of getting some righteous wheels was enough to willingly persuade him to accept his calling.
“I really wanted to resist the notion that God might want me to be a priest. I found it quite embarrassing to have this kind of voice of insistence inside me.
“But in the end what makes sense of a vocation is the growing conviction that this is what makes sense of my life. This is going to be the pathway in which that deepest part of me is fulfilled To be a priest is a call to a happy life, to a fulfilled life and that is what young men still find today, perhaps not as many but it is still there.”
He also believes that aspiring priests are even drawn to the sacrifices the job demands.
“The Catholic tradition is quite strong in maintaining high ideals. For example, the idea that a priest gives up the prospect of marriage – so if he is going to do it he is going to do it wholeheartedly, with the whole of his life. I think that demand of radical generosity actually appeals to young people.”
In his new role he says that he will continue with his work of trying to encourage a sense of personal devotion and also family faith.
* Archbishop Nichols will be installed at Westminster Cathedral on Thursday, May 21.