The appointment of Bishop Malcolm McMahon to be the new Archbishop of Liverpool, announced at Roman noon today, does not come as much of a surprise. Not only was the name leaked a day or so in advance, but the name of Bishop McMahon has been on everyone’s lips for some time. He was considered by many as a likely successor to Cardinal Murphy O’Connor, so it is hardly surprising that the runner up to Westminster (if such he was) should get the second most important job in the English hierarchy.
And what a job! He will have plenty to do in Liverpool. Catholicism is predominantly an urban phenomenon, and not only in Britain either, and Liverpool is an important Catholic city. How well I remember the late Alice Thomas Ellis, a convert, talking of the Liverpool of her youth and how Catholicism was “in the air”.
There is still a lot of it in the culture of that great city, and this is something that the new Archbishop will surely capitalise on. As in New York, Boston and other great Catholic cities of the English speaking world, the Archbishop need only to walk down a road to be instantly recognised, to meet the faithful, and perhaps more importantly, to meet all those who never go to Mass but should. Liverpool is a difficult place in some ways, thanks to economic recession and economic change, but in other ways it is an easy city for the Church, for it is one of those places were Catholicism has no need to make excuses for its presence, but is a natural part of the landscape, a natural part of the place’s history.
The new Archbishop came to the episcopacy via a slightly unusual route, being the former provincial of the Order of Preachers in this country. He is not the first bishop to come from a religious order, or even the first Dominican to be a made a bishop, but his origins perhaps point to a slight widening of the field in which future bishops are found. Our most successful bishop of recent times, Cardinal Hume, was also a religious, let us remember. Why should this matter? It matters because it is clear that the Pope wants to spread the net wider in the search for bishops, and has said so on several occasions.
The McMahon ‘pick’ represents a spreading of the net, though not perhaps a very dramatic one. It would have been really dramatic if the Pope had circumvented the usual machinery for picking bishops and lifted a priest straight out of his parish, something he is supposed to have done in Argentina since becoming Pope. But the Pope is not as informed about England as he is about his native land – but perhaps this will come in time. Let’s wait and see what the Francis revolution (if that is what it is) brings.