OUR REPORT this week that the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Pablo Puente, is expected to submit his recommendations for the successor to Cardinal Basil Hume ' soon after he returns from holiday in Spain at the end of August raises a number of questions, not simply about the identity of . the individual likely eventually to emerge from this procedure, but about more fundamental issues.
The three names likely to be submitted to Rome — Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, Fr Timothy Radcliffe, and Bishop Vincent Nichols — are all English: but what is striking is not what they have in common but how very different their backgrounds are.
One is a former missionary in Africa, presently serving in Rome; one is Master of the Dominican order; one is an auxiliary Bishop. It may be, of course, that their personal experience is irrelevant, that they have been chosen for their personal qualities alone. But the alternative is both more interesting and more likely: that their respective backgrounds are also an important part of what it is that they have to give, both to the archdiocese of Westmin' ster and to the wider Church.
' The reasons for the inclusion of the two younger candidates are clear enough. Bishop Nichols is already well known in ,Westminster, and is thought to be the personal choice of Cardinal Hume himself Fr Radcliffe, like Bishop Fitzgerald, is based in Rome, but unlike him has spent most of his priestly life in England. His abilities are beyond question: nobody will be surprised at his inclusion on the nuncio's tern.
The third candidate is more intriguing. He has not lived in England for many years. He will be seen as Rome's candidate: this will no doubt raise the hackles of those who believe, in the words of a letter on this page from Fr John H. Fitzsimmons, in "an open, accountable process", in which the local church has a greater say. But this approach has obvious shortcomings. It is unlikely that Cardinal Hume would have emerged from a more local and more democratic procedure; his appointment was the result of a stroke of inspiration on the part of Rome's representative, the then papal nuncio, Archbishop Bruno Heim. He was, in a sense, an outside choice: the most obvious insider was passed over precisely because he was too well known within the system to be seen as the best candidate to achieve the unity which proved to be Cardinal Hume's greatest legacy.
BEFORE THE BEST candidate can emerge, there are questions to be asked. What is the present situation of the Catholic Church in England? In what direction do we need now to begin moving? In some ways, English Catholicism is in a stronger position now than it has been for many years. Cardinal Hume, in the words of one Anglian bishop, "changed the whole feel of English Catholicism"; as the Times obituary put it, "after centuries during which there had always been a suspicion that to be Catholic was -to be either foreign or in some sense
disloyal, Catholicism had become a natural part ofof English life".
At the same time, however, it has to be said that there has been a decline, not only in Church attendance statistics but in apostolic zeal. The prayer for the conversion of England, which used to be a familiar part of the prayers of the faithful, has long since fallen into misuse: indeed, when Cardinal Hume, sensing what he thought might be a favourable moment for the reception of many converts, said that it might be the beginning of "the conversion of England we have always prayed for", he was obliged to retract his words. There has grown up, to quote Fr Aidan Nichols's major article in last week's Catholic Herald, a "politically correct refusal to speak about the conversion of England for fear of offending ecumenical or inter-faith possibilities".
And yet, it is part of the very nature of the Catholic faith that it is less than itself when it is not being shared with others. To quote Fr Nichols again, the graces of baptism and confirmation "are not given exclusively for the purpose of personal sanctification. They are given for the insertion of individuals in the common mission of the Church, which continues that of the Apostles, who continued that of Christ, whose own mission was the prolongation of his eternal procession as the Divine Son — all with a view of bringing back a world lost and wandering to the Father in its entirety. As the present Holy Father put it in his encyclical on mission, 'faith is strengthened when it is given to others'."
And by extension, Faith is weakened when it is not given to others. Might this be part of the explanation at least for the decline in Mass attendance over the last 30 years? The Catholic Church has become more acceptable to English culture: but is that because it is more faithful to its divine mission, or because it has come to be seen as no longer posing a threat, as no longer being what the Pope has always insisted it is in the very nature of the Church to be, a "sign of contradiction"? Have we become merely harmless?
THE CHURCH'S DECLINE has not been one in numbers merely: that has to be clearly understood. There has been also a decline in belief. Cardinal Hume, towards the end of his life, had become deeply anxious about a general decline in faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, a weakening of "the respect and devotion due to so great a sacrament". This is a crucial symptorn of a wider malaise, which it must be the mission of the new Cardinal to address. The Church in England must renew its faith by giving it to others: perhaps, who knows, that accounts for the emergence of a missionary bishop as one of the candidates for Westminster. Bishop Fitzgerald has been reported as being "strong on Evangelism". Time will tell who is to be the new leader of the English Catholic Church. But we must surely pray that the conversion of England will be written on his heart.