Monday, February 04, 2008

Benedict's Basil?

Later this year -- mid-fall, the estimate goes -- Pope Benedict is expected to name a new archbishop of Westminster to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who reached the retirement age last August.

Whatever its actual merits, for some months now the British press has been doing what we Yanks would call "horserace," floating one potential candidate or another for the top slot of the hierarchy in England and Wales.

Given recent history -- i.e. the 1976 appointment of Basil Hume OSB, the abbot of Ampleforth, to the archbishopric -- The Times' latest entry is worthy of note:
Hugh Gilbert, 55, the abbot of Pluscarden Abbey in Elgin, Moray, has become a serious candidate to replace Murphy-O’Connor when he retires later this year.

The ultimate decision will rest with the Pope, but senior church figures are said to have been impressed with Gilbert’s orthodox views and leadership skills.

No candidate has succeeded to the post from such an obscure background since Basil Hume more than three decades ago. He was the relatively unknown abbot of Ampleforth, in Yorkshire, when in 1976 he was appointed Archbishop of Westminster, the most senior Catholic post in England and Wales.

Although several serving bishops have been mooted as possible successors, one senior Catholic source said: “It is time to go outside the episcopal club of England and Wales.”

For some time Rome has felt that the liberal drift of the bishops has failed to halt declining church attendance. Gilbert would represent a change in style because he is known as a traditionalist with dynamic qualities of leadership. He has presided over an expansion of his abbey and the founding of two offshoots in Africa and America.

Another senior Catholic said: “It’s true that Hugh’s name is being discussed as a potential successor and he is mortified and embarrassed at the attention he is receiving.

“I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could be appointed. He is part of a very successful monastic community which is bursting at the seams. He is a quiet, scholarly monk who would probably accept the appointment out of obedience to the church.”

Vatican officials visited Pluscarden and are said to have been impressed with Gilbert’s powers of delegation and the high esteem in which he is held within and outside the monastery.

An Englishman and a convert to Catholicism, Gilbert was educated at St Paul’s school and King’s College London. He became a monk in 1974. Since his election as abbot in 1992, Pluscarden has gone from strength to strength and is now home to 27 monks. He is known for humility, a self-effacing style and “a dry sense of humour and sparkling wit”....

Whoever succeeds will be expected to find a way of tackling secularism and boosting church attendance. The Catholic Church has suffered a serious fall in the size of its congregations in Britain, although recently its numbers have been bolstered by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Poles and Lithuanians after the expansion of the European Union in 2004. Attendance at Sunday mass in 1991 was recorded as 1.3m, a drop of 40% since 1963.

Were Gilbert to move to Westminster, it would be a marked change of lifestyle. As well as being in a remote location, Pluscarden belongs to the Benedictines, who follow the rule of the 5th-century pioneer St Benedict. The monks lead a life of prayer and quiet reflection, rising each morning before dawn and spending much of the day singing Gregorian chants.
A 2006 homily from Dom Hugh on "Christ the Light" is a quality read.... The abbot's latest book is a series of conferences on the liturgical year.