this modest but greatly admired leader is approaching retirement age. ANDREW M BROWN looks at what the future may have in store AFEW WEEKS AGO a mischievous item appeared in the diary column of The Times. By all accounts it caused consternation in Archbishop's House, Westminster. It concerned the auxiliary bishop in north London, the Rt Rev Vincent Nicholls. (And it appears at a time of puzzled speculation about the extraordinary delay at the appointment of new bishops to the dioceses of Hallam and Salford. Is Rome unhappy with the calibre of candidates, or with their politics?)
Calling him "supersmooth", the diarist accused Bishop Nicholls of having done little to hide his ambition to succeed Cardinal Hume and ended with an arch punchline: the title of his forthcoming book, Promise of Future Glory.
So did the Cardinal have Bishop Nicholls in mind when he said recently: "I think the person who comes after me would have to do it differently from me"?
The Cardinal reaches retirement age, 75, next March. The Holy Father could ask him to stay on for, say, another four years. And "on good days he is making plans for the millennium", says an insider.
People who claim to know about these things think that Bishop Nicholls, a charming, 51-year-old Liverpudlian, is being groomed for the job. Very much on the inside track, he was a protégé of Archbishop Worlock and raised his profile as an effective General Secretary to the Bishops' Conference. Admirers speak of his ability to make anyone he speaks to especially women feel somehow better for the experience.
The Times diarist drifted into the realms of fantasy, however, with the suggestion that Bishop Nicholls turned down the archbishopric of Liverpool which after a long hiatus went to the Bishop of Salford, the Rt Rev Patrick Kelly "with his eyes on the greater prize" of Westminster. If it is true that he turned it down, his reasons are more likely to have been that he did not feel ready for such a hot seat.
Bishop Nicholls's popularity not only in the media but among the hierarchy is such that the only conceivable obstacles in his way are his comparative youth and the unknown quantities the minds of the Papal Nuncio and the Pope himself. If the vocal support he receives is interpreted as coming from a faction, for instance of liberal critics of the Holy See, then this may weigh against him (two well-known characters, separately, used the pointed phrase "the kiss of death"). The Vatican knows a bandwagon when it sees one.
For the time being, however, individuals who mutter in private about grey eminences will have to learn to take the smooth with the smooth, as someone said of Tony Blair.
The Most Rev Patrick Kelly could make the move from Liverpool to Westminster, as Cardinal Heenan did in 1963. The 58-year-old Lancastrian pioneered teenage confirmation in Salford and pleased many by banning the controversial educational resource Weaving the !Jab.
Although he can be unforthcoming with the press, he is greatly loved by his clergy and his people. He is a homely, chuckling, elfin figure who retains a love of Latin and keeps the skull of St Ambrose Barlow in his house. "His Grace Kelly" is, unusually for an English bishop, a serious student of theology.
A dark horse among the English bishops is the 53year-old Bishop of East Anglia, the Rt Rev Peter Smith, an expert on canon law who chairs the Committee on Marriage and Family life. He is reckoned to be one of the brightest of the bishops.
Meanwhile, four others are routinely mentioned as possible successors to Cardinal Hume. The urbane Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Rev Crispian Hollis, 60, son of a Tory MP, educated at Stonyhurst, Balliol and the Venerabile, has been a vigorous critic of press barons and the media, which may explain why he is so unpopular with some journalists ("he's horribly patronising", says one). Then there is Bishop Christopher Budd of Plymouth, who is almost 60 and shares with Bishop Hollis an interest in cricket.
TWO OLDER candidates are Bishop Cormac MurphyO'Connor, of Arundel and Brighton, and Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville, of Birmingham. Their ages (64 and 67) make either suitable for a shortterm appointment along the lines of Cardinal Hinsley, who took over at 69 nd proved a roaring success. Bishop Murphy-O'Connor who, though English-born, exudes Hibernian charm, is fancied by those who prefer an experienced pastoral bishop (with an ethnic flavour) to a figurehead. He was Rector of the English College, a job previously held by Cardinals Hinsley and Godfrey.
The least anodyne choice would certainly be the Archbishop of Birmingham. We know him by his works: he fearlessly banned the more adventurous outpourings of the Catholic Education Service under Bishop David Konstant such as Waving the Web and the "value-neutral" Education in Sexuality. But he is no reactionary: he is distinctly uncomfortable with Opus Dei. The fanciful rumour persists that Cardinal Hume has stayed on to deny him preferment. The nephew of a French prime minister and the author of a work on the Ultramontane Catholic apologist John Milner, he offers a certain glamour, and a European sensibility, as well as providing welcome relief from the culture of blandness which pervades the Bishops' Conference.
This lack of colour may be what the Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read has in mind when he says: "One doesn't want to be discourteous, but perhaps someone completely from outside is needed, someone who could ginger them up." Who is there outside these shores? The former provincial of the Jesuits, Fr Michael Campbell-Johnston was talked up at one time. Retired in El Salvador, he is now a rank outsider. But one English rising star in the Vancan is virtually unknown here: Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, a White Father, works for Cardinal Arinze in the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue and is involved in the papally approved Charismatic Renewal movement. He is a quiet, erudite but goodhumoured man who, although approaching 60, retains a schoolboy appearance. His friend, Fr Rafael Esteban, says: "He is not an ambitious man. He is above all a man of service."
One last name. During the months leading up to Abbot Hume's translation to Westminster, several prominent lay Catholics quietly lobbied on his behalf. Whilst there is no suggestion yet of any "toffs' conspiracy" this time, it is rumoured that the appointment of the Most Rev Timothy Radcliffe, Master General of the Dominicans, would bring a smile to the face of the Duke of Norfolk. Fr Radcliffe presents an intriguing combination of distinguished Catholic lineage, radical Left-wing politics (which led to his arrest in 1983 at the US base in Upper Heyford) and high intelligence. The worldwide head of the great preaching order inspires deep affection in his friends. They speak of his charm and spirituality, and his charity even to his detractors.
At times during the past 21 years it has seemed as if the English Catholic Church, whose ministry was once limited to a small, mostly immigrant community, has, while anxious to resist the temptation of triumphalism, filled a vacuum in the whole nation's spiritual life. The reason for this lies in the quintessentially English personality of Cardinal Hume, who is our longest-serving arch bishop after Manning.
There are some who feel that this subtle repositioning of Catholicism is less important than the need for a practical pastoral archbishop looking inwards at parochial concerns; a low-key Irishman would be fine. In the words of Fr Oliver McTernan, parish priest of St Francis, Notting Hill: "The Church has to face some very serious pastoral and structural problems. The new man must be alert to the decline in priesthood and parish structures."
Traditionalists, on the other hand, think that Rome is tiring of the placid, apologetic tone of the English bishops. The Vatican, they suspect, is looking for a conservative who will be uncompromising in the teaching and preservation of Catholic doctrine. According to the historian Paul Johnson, "Whoever succeeds Cardinal Hume will be strong, traditional, loyal and above all obedient to the Pope."
The chances are that Rome will be thinking along these lines. The question is: where is this man to be found?