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Friday, 7 January, 2000, 18:55 GMT
New archbishop faces emptying pews

vatican The Vatican: Criticism over its appointment of bishops

By BBC News Online's Alex Kirby

More than six months after the death of the UK best-loved Catholic leader, Cardinal Basil Hume, the Vatican has still not named the man to succeed him as Archbishop of Westminster.

Many Catholics had hoped - and expected - that Hume's successor would have been named by Christmas. Now, grimly, they tell themselves that the new archbishop could be in the cathedral in time for Easter, which falls in late April.

"The church today is all about control," a senior English Catholic told BBC News Online. "That's what is causing the delay.

"The Congregation for Bishops, the part of the Vatican responsible for appointing bishops around the world, will give the Pope the name of the man they approve of.

"They have made a series of spectacularly appalling appointments in the past. And the Pope is now so frail that he will probably just accept whoever they decide to put forward."

Halting the slide

The expectation now is that the new Archbishop of Westminster will probably be named in February, although an earlier announcement is still possible.

Whoever is chosen will almost certainly be named a cardinal before long, as Hume was.

His most urgent job will be to try to arrest the steady haemorrhaging of Catholic attendance at mass and involvement in other religious activities.

hume Basil Hume's shoes will be hard to fill
Research published last June in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, showed what the magazine called "a sharp decline in most areas of church life since the sixties".

Numbers were down in almost every sphere: priests, those seeking training for the priesthood, lay Catholics attending church and using the sacraments, all showed significant losses. The only exception was the number attending Catholic schools.

The author of the Tablet article concludes that the church faces "rapid decline", and that "without some reform, the downward path will continue".

Some people will hope the new man will devote himself to trying to improve relations with Anglicans and with other Christian churches, as well as other faiths.

Block over women

But the priority that receives will depend on the importance the next Pope attaches to it. And there is little prospect of much progress with the Church of England until either it stops ordaining women priests, or the Catholic Church starts doing so.

One name often mentioned as Hume's likely successor is Vincent Nichols, an auxiliary bishop in the Westminster diocese, and the man running it during the interim.

pope A frail pontiff relies on his advisers
Also in his mid-50s is Timothy Radcliffe, a monk who heads the Dominican order, and is both socially and politically a radical.

"He is the one man who could step into the shoes of Basil Hume," the Catholic source told BBC News Online. "Like him, Timothy can make doctrine live - he can bring people to faith.

"But the Congregation of Bishops would not accept him. One of the worst things about this papacy is the mediocre and reactionary bishops it has produced.

"Hume was a risk, though a risk that worked. The Congregation won't take a risk again."

Two men both in their late sixties are thought to be possible candidates. They are David Konstant, bishop of Leeds, and Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

Another front-runner is Patrick Kelly, archbishop of Liverpool, where his style is seen as a marked contrast with his charismatic late predecessor, Derek Worlock.

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See also:
25 Jun 99 |  UK
'Humble' Hume's final farewell
18 Jun 99 |  UK
The search for Hume's successor
03 Jan 00 |  UK
Faiths unite for millennium service
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