So the new Archbishop of Westminster will be the current Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols. He was always the front-runner, and his appointment will come as little suprise.
It was clearly not the shoe-in that some always thought it would be. The appointment took much longer than anticipated, and there were plenty of reports that the Congregation of Bishops in Rome was having difficulty choosing. There was a particularly damging story that some bishops had written to Rome to object to Archbishop Nichols as ’too ambitious’ and ’uncollegial’.
There is truth in the accusation. Archbishop Nichols has run a largely autonomous operation in recent years, barely disguising his impatience with the bishops’ conference for dragging its feet. But sharp-witted, energetic reformers are not normally also consensus-builders, and the Pope clearly has faith in his undoubted abilities.
Rome is famous for using the principle of contrast in its appointments, the idea being the new appointee makes up for the deficiencies of the former. This is a classic example: Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s genteel, laid-back style will now be replaced by a man who is sharp, focussed and a superb operator.
Among the many areas where Archbishop Nichols has demonstrated his exceptional gifts is in the area of Catholic social teaching. With Britain at the centre of the global economic crisis, and Pope Benedict due to issue a new social encyclical in May, and the English and Welsh bishops due to launch their own social document later this year, this could turn out to be Nichols’s great contribution to the UK Catholic Church’s voice in our time.