Page last updated at 10:22 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 11:22 UK

A 'tough champion' for Catholics

By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News

Archbishop Vincent Nichols
Archbishop Nichols has maintained a high profile in the Church.

Vincent Nichols might easily have taken the top job in the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales nine years ago.

In early 2000 some Roman Catholics saw the Auxiliary Bishop in Westminster as the most likely successor to Cardinal Basil Hume, who had died in 1999 and whose burial Bishop Nichols presided over.

His appointment might have promoted continuity, but Pope John Paul II chose the long-serving Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, instead.

Bishop Nichols was also promoted, becoming the Archbishop of Birmingham in March 2000.

A keen football fan, the 63-year-old Archbishop Nichols has maintained a high profile in the Church hierarchy while in Birmingham.

He took on chairmanship of the body set up to prevent a repetition of the sexual abuse of young people by priests that had scandalised the Church.

And as head of the Catholic Education Service he won a battle against the government over the allocation of places in Catholic schools to non-Catholic pupils.

Vincent Gerard Nichols was born in Crosby on Merseyside in November 1945, the son of teachers, and was ordained a priest in 1969.

The road to his lofty achievements began with a more humble ambition, as he wanted to become a lorry driver when a young boy.

Born 8 November 1945 in Crosby, Liverpool
Son of teachers and a fan of Liverpool FC
Enters the priesthood in December 1969
Began life as a priest in a parish in Wigan
Consecrated as a bishop by Cardinal Hume in January 1992
Installed as Archbishop of Birmingham in March 2000
Selected to commentate on the televised funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005

But it was as a teenager that he felt the calling to become a priest.

"I'd gone to watch Liverpool and stand on the Kop at Anfield, and say to God: 'Why don't you just leave me alone? Why can't I just be one of a crowd?'," he told the Times in 2007.

The young Father Nichols spent 14 years in the Liverpool archdiocese, where he came under the care of Archbishop Derek Worlock.

Archbishop Worlock is reputed to have observed Father Nichols' efforts to help divorced couples to remarry - something controversial in the Church - and encouraged him to make more "Vatican-friendly" gestures with a view to eventual promotion.

Vincent Nichols was firmly inserted into the Church hierarchy when he became the general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales.

He occupied this influential post for nine years, earning a reputation as a dynamic administrator.

In 1992 he moved as auxiliary bishop to the Archdiocese of Westminster, taking on special pastoral responsibility for north London.

Then came Birmingham, a large demanding archdiocese where Archbishop Nichols had the chance to shine on the national stage.

Effective communicator

He became the Church's lead spokesman on education, including among his official posts head of the Bishops' Conference Department for Catholic Education and Formation.

In 2006, when the government introduced plans to force faith schools to take up to a quarter of pupils from "other religions", he mounted a campaign against what he called "insulting" and "divisive" plans.

Archbishop Nichols pointed out Catholic schools already took some 30% of their pupils from other faiths or no faith at all, and denounced coercion by the law as "ill thought-out, unworkable and contradictory of empirical evidence".

Perhaps more significantly he wrote to the head teachers of the more than 2,000 Catholic schools, mobilising them in the campaign. The plan was eventually stripped of its coercive elements.

He retained a reputation as an effective media performer and tough champion for the Church in a secularising society.

That may have played a decisive part in the Pope's decision to appoint him to head what is one of the most important archdioceses in the Church.

'Good with people'

Peter Jennings, his press secretary, describes him as a "very thoughtful" and prayerful man.

He added: "Some people have described him as calculating. I would just say that he thinks very, very carefully about what he wants to do and the ramifications of a decision that he takes.

"He is fiercely loyal to his friends and he is hard-working and diligent. He has an open door to his priests and is extremely good with people."

But some sources - admittedly on the liberal wing of the Church - claim the archbishop is seen as insufficiently "collegial".

When pushed, some of the same clergy suggest that although to become the head of the Church in England and Wales it does not hurt to have been somewhat ambitious, it is best not to let it show - and Vincent Nichols has sometimes been a little too open about wanting the top job.

But there is agreement that he will understand the political machine he is inheriting in Westminster and be a robust defender of the Church's interests.

He has shown he could prove to be a skilled negotiator in the role. Where other leaders might have presented just the mailed fist, Archbishop Nichols is expected to cloak it within a velvet glove.

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