Friday, December 05, 2008

Changing of the Guard

Get ready for a historic year, folks: 2009 will see the two most prominent posts in the English-speaking Catholic world both changing hands.

One, of course, is New York... and the other is Westminster, the 500,000-member primatial see of England and Wales, where Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor reached the retirement age in August 2007.

The tenth archbishop since the abolition of the Reformation-era penal laws and the hierarchy's 1850 reestablishment, Murphy-O'Connor (above) was named to the post in 2000 in succession to the epochal Basil Hume, and given the red hat quickly thereafter.

Yet as British Catholics historically eclipsed Anglicans nationwide in terms of Sunday attendance and Tony Blair "Poped" in his private chapel, the Irish-blooded prelate who spent three decades as bishop of Arundel and Brighton along the South Coast before his surprising ascent to the capital has proven to be a quiet, pastoral -- and, yes, sometimes controversial -- figure in his predecessor's titanic, Benedictine shadow.

Even so, the British press -- no strangers to stirring the pot -- have gone into overdrive for some weeks (...make that months ...actually, well over a year) now in advance of the cardinal's Sunday departure for Rome, and a private audience with Pope Benedict at which his succession is "highly likely" to come up.

The Archbishop of Westminster wants Pope Benedict XVI to name his successor in the next three months.

He offered his resignation when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 in August last year but the Pontiff asked him to remain in office until the most suitable candidate was found to replace him.

After an exhaustive search, a shortlist, or terna, has now been drawn up by Archbishop Faustino Sainz Munoz, the papal nuncio – or ambassador - to Great Britain, who will deliver it in person to the Vatican before Christmas.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is making very few diary appointments after that time, while arrangements are in place for him to retire to a six-bedroom house in Chiswick, west London.

He has been telling acquaintances that he does not think there is long to go before he will be able to step down.

The official purpose of the Cardinal’s visit to Rome is to attend five days of meetings of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, of which he is a member.

But he has an appointment for a private audience with the Pope on Thursday.....

[W]ith a shortlist drawn up and the Cardinal keen to hand over the responsibility of his office to a younger man, it is widely expected that he will press the Pope to draw up a timetable so that the next Archbishop of Westminster can be installed at Easter....

[In retirement, Murphy-O'Connor] is considering working as an adviser to the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the organisation set up by the former Prime Minister in June to advance dialogue between different religions.

The contents of the shortlist are bound by 'pontifical secret' but sources close to the Archdiocese of Westminster have suggested that the names on the terna include Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Birmingham; Peter Smith, the Archbishop of Cardiff, and Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham.

It is rumoured that the Cardinal personally favours Bishop McMahon, a Londoner and a former engineer, who, like himself, is enthusiastic about forging close relations with Anglican and other Christian churches.

However, the papal nuncio, who main job is to advise the Pope on the appointment of bishops, is said to prefer the Battersea-born Archbishop Smith, 65, a straight-talking canon lawyer who has led Church campaigns against euthanasia, easier abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

'The nuncio is pushing Smith,' said a source close to the Vatican. 'If he is pushing him, it will be the case that Smith will be at the top of the shortlist.'

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power this week slashed the odds on Archbishop Smith from 16/1 to 4/1 while Archbishop Nichols, 63, a protégé of Cardinal Basil Hume, remains 13/8 favourite. Bishop McMahon, 59, is the outsider at 10/1.

...and you thought things were brazen on these shores?

Like New York, Westminster has never known a transfer of governance from one living archbishop to his successor -- the preceding primates all died in office.