Archbishop Nichols comes home to Westminster

There were many in the congregation at today's Mass of Installation of the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who smiled at the moment when his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, handed him the crozier.

They remembered how, in 2000, it was the then Bishop Nichols who handed the crozier to the then Bishop Murphy-O'Connor. The crozier had been Cardinal Basil Hume's until his death. Nichols, then an auxiliary of Westminster, had been administrator of the diocese during the vacancy -- which is why it was his task to hand over the bishop's staff.

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Today, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor handed it back at a spectacularly solemn Mass at the mother church of Britain's 4.5m Catholics.

The Mass of Installation -- adapted from an ancient rite taken from a Pontifical used at Canterbury in the late 15th century which has been used since the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850 --began with Archbishop Nichols in gold cape outside the Cathedral. On the stroke of 12, the cathedral doors swung open, and the trumpets erupted. He kissed the crucifix handed him by the Provost -- the most senior priest of the diocese -- before processing to the altar accompanied by the scarlet-robed canons of the Cathedral Chapter.

Then the Apostolic Nuncio handed the Apostolic Letter from the Holy See to the Chancellor of the Diocese, Bishop John Arnold, and ordered it read. "With our highest apostolic authority," the Pope wrote, "we name you as metropolitan Archbishop of Westminster, with all its rights and obligations".

Seated on the throne, Archbishop Vincent received a number of representatives, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who spoke of the closeness of the Catholic and Anglican Churches and looked forward to the "fruitful and exciting" work the two would do together.

As well as Cardinals -- Roger Mahony of LA, Sean brady of Armagh, O'Brien of Edinburgh -- there were about 20 MPs present.

The 11th Archbishop of Westminster's first message took lessons from St Paul's Damascene conversion. Because Paul knew God, he could be opened up to "belief in God's full presence in Jesus Christ" as well as to dialogue with pagan philosophy; the struggle to express the truth of Christ brought him contact with the finest minds of his age.

"Faith in God is not, as some would portray it today, a narrowing of the human mind or spirit," Archbishop Nichols said. "It is precisely the opposite. Faith in God is the gift that takes us beyond our limited self, with all its incessant demands."

He objected to those who set faith and reason in opposition; such a diminishing of both "inhibits not only our search for truth but also the possibility of real dialogue", he said. 

Much of the homily was about the kind of debate and dialogue that needed to take place in modern Britain -- implying that the level of such dialogue was at the moment appallingly low.

Appealing "for the debate of secular versus religion not to be conducted in terms of insult or harassment", he said "reasoned principle must not be construed as prejudice", adding that in this the Church had much to learn as well as to contribute.

He also made a robust defence of the contribution of faith to public life. Faith, he said, is never solitary and cannot be private: it draws people into community and into public life. Faith "builds community and expresses itself in action".

There was a call to the media to assist in creative dialogue rather than marginalising and belitting the voice of faith. And a call for respect for what he called "the institutional integrity of communities of faith" to allow faith communities to become "wholehearted contributors to the society we seek".

This is the new Archbishop's manifesto: to bring the voice of Catholics and other faiths into the public square in the face of growing secular hostility and anti-religious prejudice.

In an illustration of the challenges and misunderstanding he will face, the new Archbishop has been greeted on the day of his installation with strong criticism of his reaction to the publication of a report into abuse in church-run reform schools in Ireland.

But at the end of Mass, the Apostolic Nuncio and Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor assured him he was not alone, and carried the support and prayers of many.

There was a poignant moment before then when the new Archbishop went to pray at the tomb of Cardinal Basil Hume, who -- together with the then Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock -- was his mentor and guide.

It was Hume who spotted the Liverpool priest's talents and made him general secretary of the Bishops' Conference before making him an auxiliary bishop of Westminster from 1992 to 2000. 

In fact, Archbishop Nichols has spent 18 years as a priest in London -- more than in his native Liverpool.

So today's Mass was in many ways a homecoming, and continuity its leitmotif -- helped by the fact that Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is alive to hand over. All previous Archbishops of Westminster have died in harness.

Archbishop Nichols is only 63. So there's a fair chance he'll be around to hand his over too.

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