Mapping a mission of mercy

Mapping a mission of mercy Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. Photo: CNS
Westminster’s Cardinal Vincent Nichols tells Martin O’Brien about Pope Francis’ programme to reform the Church

Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, is the foremost Catholic Church leader in these islands, one of the Pope’s principal advisors in the appointment of bishops and a major figure on the European ecclesiastical stage.

So, it was quite a coup for St Brigid’s parish in south Belfast to have the pleasure of his company to deliver the annual St Brigid’s lecture, now established as one of the highlights of the church calendar.

During a wide-ranging exclusive interview with The Irish Catholic, in the lecture – a reflection on the Year of Mercy – and in a subsequent question-and-answer session the cardinal delivered a compelling exegesis on the spirituality of Pope Francis and his programme for radical reform that is, he points out, in keeping with the tradition of the Church down the centuries.

Throughout, the cardinal quoted liberally from the Pope’s Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the apostolic exhortation that followed the Synod on the Family, the apostolic letter Misericordia et Misera, issued in November at the close of the Year of Mercy and Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the apostolic exhortation that has been described as the programme of this papacy.

Culture of encounter

Cardinal Nichols told the audience of several hundred, including Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Bishop emeritus Patrick Walsh and Auxiliary Bishop emeritus Anthony Farquhar, that the Pope wanted to generate “a culture of mercy” and “a culture of encounter” in a Church of “missionary disciples” that would lead people ultimately to the Father in Heaven, taking great care “never to demean the smallest of steps along the way”.

He said “the two words ‘accompaniment’ and ‘discernment’ were at the heart of the Holy Father’s drive to see the Church become a place of mercy and salvation.”

“[Those two words] are central to Amoris Laetitia; they are central to the Year of Mercy and he has made them central to the next Synod of Bishops on ‘Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment’, by which is meant the task of helping youngsters to see the way in which the call of the Gospel is to take concrete expression and shape their lives.”

The cardinal said: “Pope Francis says that the whole point of the Church is to bring us to the Father. He said this is God’s entire project working through creation and redemption and through every moment in the life of each human being.

“In a wonderful phrase, Pope Francis describes this world as ‘God’s construction site’.  That is that God is trying to build in the lives of every one of us a pathway by which we reach Our Father’s home.”

Drawing from Evangelii Gaudium, the cardinal focussed on two axioms which are, he said, at the heart of the Pope’s vision for reform and renewal within the Church and within ourselves.

The first is “time is greater than space” by which he means “that we should not be trying to fill, or dominate space and shape it as we believe it ought to be shaped.

“Rather we must respect the speed, the timing – slow or fast – by which things change and grow. This axiom can apply to us in many circumstances and it is so contrary to much that we are accustomed to in our hurried, busy culture.”

Second axiom

The second axiom is “reality is more important than ideas”. This means for Pope Francis “reform is always a matter of spiritual discernment, whether in the life of Church or of the individual. Such discernment attends first of all to the realities, to the limited degrees of goodness and failure that are to be found in every situation.”

What we are looking for, in this discernment, the cardinal said, were “shades of progress, not the black and white of a final judgement.”

Cardinal Nichols, aged 71, a native of Crosby, Merseyside, and an avid Liverpool fan, has said as a schoolboy he wanted to become a lorry driver but that was before he discerned a calling to the priesthood.

He is a cautious leader who measures his words carefully – as any bishop should – but he doesn’t flinch from speaking truth to power when he feels it is necessary, as when he attacked the British government’s welfare cuts as an assault on the destitute and stood up to David Cameron over same-sex marriage.

Cardinal Nichols carefully chooses the issues he goes public on and his prudence means that he is listened to when he addresses an important national issue.

Observers describe a humble man and have remarked that he does not court the establishment, including royalty, in the way some of his predecessors are said to have done.

He is one of the most effective media performers among the English-speaking world’s Church leaders, becoming known throughout the UK when he was Archbishop of Birmingham for his BBC TV commentary from Rome on the funeral of Pope St John Paul II.

The day he arrived in Belfast, his first visit to the city in almost 30 years, he was up at dawn for an early morning appearance with Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought in which he highlighted to an estimated audience of more than nine million the plight of women victims of human trafficking on the eve of the feast of St Josephine Bakhita, the patron saint of modern-day slaves.

It is an issue close to his heart, as he recounted in his lecture; having only arrived late afternoon he had to return to London first thing the following morning to celebrate Mass at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, where he is Chancellor, to mark the official launch of the university’s Centre for the Study of Modern Slavery.

What came through in our interview again and again was Cardinal Nichols’ admiration and support for Pope Francis.

When I asked him right at the start to assess the impact of the Year of Mercy he replied: “I think one of the great capacities of Pope Francis is to speak to the heart of people with his words but especially with his gestures.”

The Pope, he said, “understands the dilemmas of human living and he very much wants to make space for people to be able to bring to the Church those dilemmas, the ambiguities in their lives and know that the expression of God’s love is mercy [which is] not a rigorous demand but a merciful embrace”.

Although we “live in a public culture which is pretty unforgiving” the Pope is making space for people, whatever their difficulties, to come to the Church and feel accepted and his example was also giving a signal to wider society to treat people similarly.

But what had he to say to critics of Pope Francis in the Church who think that with all this talk of mercy and compassion the concept of sin is not spoken of at all?

“I would ask them to pay more attention to what the concept of mercy is because the way in which mercy takes its expression is in forgiveness and forgiveness is about sin,” he said.

“So certainly, in Westminster and in many of the dioceses in England and Wales – and I choose the word deliberately – there has been an explosion in the number of people going to Confession. Now you go to Confession because you are conscious of your sin, but just as important, you go to Confession to celebrate that sacrament because the wonder of the mercy of God is being refreshed within you”.

He describes the Francis papacy as “a huge tonic, a revitalisation almost” for a great many people in the Church in England and Wales.

“The Pope has taken the notion in Lumen Gentium of the People of God, a foundational image of the Church and he has unpacked that and opened it up, and his favourite expression is that the Church is the company of ‘missionary disciples’ and that goes deep in his thinking.”

I asked Cardinal Nichols if in his work on the Congregation for Bishops he could see that Pope Francis had refocussed the job spec for bishops.

“The Pope is very explicit about this. In his addresses to Nuncios and to the Congregation for Bishops he is very very clear and he uses an ancient adage: if a man is very holy ask him to pray for us; if a man is very learned ask him to teach us; but for a Bishop I want a pastor; somebody who is close to his people, in his famous phrase, one who smells of sheep.”

The cardinal stressed that Pope Francis’ emphasis on all members of the Church being “missionary disciples” – expressed forcefully in Evangelii Gaudium – comes from the Aparecida Document, chiefly authored by the then Cardinal Bergoglio, and issued by the  Conference of Latin American and Caribbean Bishops after their 2007 meeting in Aparecida, Brazil. The document uses the phrase ‘missionary disciples’ 121 times.

Cardinal Nichols says the key to understanding Pope Francis is his Ignatian formation: “We must never forget that Pope Francis is a Jesuit formed in the Ignatian discipline, a very demanding discipline of trying to discern the Spirit; there is nothing novel about it, it is deeply rooted in the Church, but we’ve never had a Pope before that has been formed by this Ignatian discipline.”

If Cardinal Nichols has any concerns about those parts of Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia – six paragraphs out of 325 – that have troubled Cardinal Raymond Burke and three other cardinals, two of whom are over 80 and without a vote in a conclave, he is keeping them to himself. He did not give a hint of any such concerns in Belfast.

This chapter addresses the issue of pastoral support for Catholics in “irregular situations”, refers to “mitigating factors in pastoral discernment” and appears to suggest that Communion for those who have divorced and civilly remarried may be permitted in certain cases.

Cardinal Burke’s doubts are not shared by many of the faithful in Belfast if the evening in St Brigid’s Church is any gauge – he wasn’t mentioned by anyone.

In the interview, I asked the cardinal if he shared any of the concerns of Cardinal Burke and the others. Cardinal Nichols replied: “For me it is very simple. Pope Francis is the Pope. He is who God has given us and, therefore, we follow his lead.”

I pointed out that Cardinal Burke has said some serious things and indicated that he and his colleagues may publish “a formal correction” if the Pope does not reply to them and clear up the supposed doubts they have expressed. How would he view such a development?

The cardinal replied: “The Pope is the one who has been chosen under the influence of the Holy Spirit to lead the Church and we will follow his lead.

“I am not going to say anything more than that because I think the Pope’s patience and reserve about this whole matter is exactly what we should observe.”

Did he think Amoris Laetitia had changed any of the Church’s teaching?

He replied: “There is no question of that. There is no question. The issues raised by Amoris Laetitia are not core doctrinal issues, these are about how do we live, in very traditional terms actually, everything in Amoris Laetitia is drawn from the tradition of the Church:  how do we live the mercy of God and how do we enable people who feel judged, feel excluded, feel as if they have no place, to begin to explore that.”

In reply to a question from the floor about whether the English Church might follow the Maltese bishops and others in responding to Amoris Laetitia he said: “We are reflecting still, listening to what the priests say, to the doubt or anxieties or expectations and we will come in due course to express some guidance.”

The current situation in the North featured briefly when Baroness Nuala O’Loan, a columnist with The Irish Catholic, asked if the cardinal had any words for politicians or voters given that there was an election under way that was already “marked by sectarianism”.

He replied: “There is only one thing really that I like to say to politicians and it is this. I think to play on fear, to foster fear, to appeal to fear as a political programme is a real betrayal of what politics should be about.”

He added: “We see a lot of it at the moment. I think the challenge to political leaders is to appeal not to what is most fearful or worst in people but to appeal to what is best in people.”

He may have had President Trump in mind, as well as some politicians in Northern Ireland. In our interview, conducted shortly before the lecture, I asked if in the light of Speaker John Bercow ruling out an address by Mr Trump in Westminster Hall, of the rare kind that Pope Benedict XVI was invited to deliver, he felt there was a danger of Prime Minister May “cosying up too closely” to President Trump.

“I don’t think”, the cardinal replied, “the responsible meeting of political leaders” carried out “to put on a new footing the very particularly special relationship historically between America and Britain should ever be described as ‘cosying up’.”

He felt this was a matter of “serious politics and I think Prime Minister May is a very serious politician, a very dedicated politician and I’m quite sure she knows exactly what she is doing.

“I think the question of a State visit is a political question, it is a diplomatic question, it is not a question of popular opinion. And to me a State visit is not a reward to somebody with whom we agree, it is a serious act of diplomacy.”

I wondered if the English and Welsh Church was experiencing anything like the crisis in vocations to the priesthood that we see in Ireland. “I don’t think we are in a crisis in England and Wales”, he said.

The situation varied from diocese to diocese and in Westminster “we had 7, 8, 6 new priests each year and in that sense, we are not doing too badly”.

He reminded me that traditionally the Church in England and Wales had depended on priests from Ireland and although it was “probably a slightly bold thing to say” they were now “more able to provide for themselves” although there were many priests in London “from all over the world”.


I did not detect in Cardinal Nichols any enthusiasm for a relaxation in the discipline of compulsory celibacy for priests or for women deacons.

“I personally value both the celibacy of the priesthood and the fact that it is restricted, as I would believe is the wish of the Lord, to men. I also find it difficult to separate diaconate out of the one Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

He stressed his support for women in leadership roles in the Church and was clearly pleased to impart that the “vast majority of Catholic schools in England and Wales are led by women, as are so many organisations in the English Catholic Church”.

“What I would fear, frankly, is that the leadership of women in the Church would simply be channelled into the Order of Deacon. And I think across the Church the leadership of women should be broader and more varied than that. I would just be a bit fearful if everything gets focussed on Orders”.

It was nearly time for the cardinal to go and deliver his lecture but he was keen to stress again the idea of “missionary disciples”.

“If you think of the Church as ‘missionary disciples’ then the clergy are those who back up and support and nurture the ‘missionary disciples’. The clergy are not in that sense the front line of the Church and I think we have to be able to understand that.”

Pope Francis has said many times that he expects his papacy to be a short one though countless members of the faithful fervently hope this will not be the case. However, having seen Cardinal Nichols in action, his stewardship and renewal of the Diocese of Westminster and the wonderful way he oversaw Benedict’s visit to Britain, he could emerge as a strong European contender in the next conclave.

He is sure-footed, lives a simple life and has a very understated approach. I think he is one to watch in a future conclave. In just a few hours he certainly made a big impression on those who observed him in Belfast last week.

A slightly shortened version of Cardinal Nichols’ lecture is available at