Archbishop Nichols was at my ordination, though it happened quite by chance. In those days he was an auxiliary bishop in Westminster, and he was leading a Martyrs’ Walk (as I think it was called) which passed the Church in which my ordination had taken place. He and his fellow walkers thus caught the tail end of the party. Funnily enough, I had met him only a few days prior to that at another ordination. I remember him telling a small group of us something that I have never forgotten: you bless people making a sign of the Cross in the vertical plane, and you bless objects making a sign of the Cross in the horizontal plane. This is something I have always remembered and done my best always to do. The then Bishop Nichols told us that he had been told this by Cardinal Hume.
I next met the soon-to-be cardinal, when he had just become Archbishop of Westminster, at a symposium organised by the Institute for Economic Affairs on the subject of overseas aid. I was there to give a brief paper about my experiences in Africa where I had seen the results of aid projects “on the ground”, and I spoke about what the Italians call “cattedrali nel deserto” (cathedrals in the deserts), what we English might term white elephants, that is to say aid projects that are not really of any use to people in Africa. The archbishop listened very carefully and made notes of what I said; I was very pleased on that occasion to have his ear, aware that my position on foreign aid, though shared by many Africans, is not held by many Europeans, especially not those in the aid industry itself.
I last saw Archbishop Nichols at a function organised by the friends of Westminster Cathedral. He went round the room saying hello to people in a very affable way – he is not in the slightest bit grand. “How are you?” I asked. He stopped and thought carefully: “I think I can say,” he said, “All things considered, that I am very well.” An honest answer to an honest question!
As I write this, Vincent is preparing to become our newest English cardinal. I am delighted by the appointment, and gratified that he has been chosen by the Pope. It is a great thing for him personally, and a great thing for all of us English Catholics too. It is particularly remarkable because so many sees that might have had a cardinal have not been given one this time around, simply because the Pope has wished, quite rightly, to internationalise and de-Europeanise the Sacred College. Venice and Turin have not made it, but Westminster has. It is clear the Pope must think highly of Vincent, and presumably knows him quite well from various international gatherings where the two men met long before the Bergoglio papacy began.
Vincent, as I said above, is not in the least bit chilly or grand, which is something he shares with the Pope. Like the Holy Father, he was born in ordinary circumstances, as were Pius X and John Paul I. Vincent’s parents were teachers, which I suppose represents a higher social standing than those of the Popes I have mentioned (railway man, postman, factory worker respectively). But, the fact remains, Vincent has been a parish priest, and can mix easily with his fellow Catholics. He knows of the challenges they face. He cares about them. He particularly cares about those who are facing the challenge of unemployment, or precarious and underpaid employment.
When Pope Francis was elected one of his fellow cardinals asked him not to forget the poor. The poor are too often forgotten, invisible even, in our society. But there was no chance that Pope Francis would forget the poor. And there is no chance Cardinal Nichols ever will either. And neither will he allow us to forget them – for which I am profoundly grateful.
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