Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 15:56 UK

Catholic Church names new leader

Archbishop Nichols talks about his hopes for the role

The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, is to become the new Archbishop of Westminster.

The 63-year-old will take over next month from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

The cardinal, who is 76, is the first man to retire in post since the mid-1800s.

Archbishop Nichols said he wanted to make sure the Church was open to challenging "new frontiers".

He said he "just swallowed hard and said 'yes'," when asked to take on the "daunting" role, because it was his strong desire to play a part in the Church's mission.

The archbishop said the Church faced challenges in terms of public life, modern culture and the needs of the people of the world.

The Catholic Church has an estimated 4.5 million followers in England and Wales.

"Faith is a great strength for building social cohesion," he said, warning that this could not be achieved on an "aggressively secular model".

Robert Pigott
Robert Pigott, BBC Religious affairs correspondent

Vincent Nichols has been the favourite for this job for some time.

It's because of his robust taking on of secularised society that he will have attracted the Pope's eye.

He took chairmanship of a special office set up for the protection of vulnerable children and adults after sexual abuse scandals a decade ago... and is associated with addressing that problem.

There was a degree of opposition at grassroots and clergy level. Some felt he showed his ambition to get this job a little too much.

Others said he was not as much one to bring everyone together to make decisions as Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor has been.

Banishing faith from public life would lead to services becoming too commercialised, he said, citing as an example the suggestion that care offered by grandparents should be quantified.

He spoke of his admiration for Pope Benedict XVI, despite criticism over the lifting of excommunications of four bishops, including Briton Richard Williamson who had said he did not believe Nazis had used gas chambers to kill Jews during World War II.

Archbishop Nichols said: "What most commentators missed was that he was putting forward his action as an example of how to reach out to extremes which otherwise would be separated, would be lost and might become dangerous.

"That's a lesson for the whole of society," he said.

The archbishop said the G20 summit had been "important" and allowed nations from different backgrounds - such as China - to take their place on the world stage.

But he said: "Money in itself will never solve the problem of this financial crisis. We have to look at ways of rebuilding trust into civic life and into public life."

He paid tribute to the "robust leadership" of Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who he said had emerged from difficult times stronger and more buoyant than when he took on the role.

In recent years, Archbishop Nichols has been outspoken on topics like Catholic education and adoption agencies.

He has defended the way Catholic schools teach children about homosexuality, saying the Church stands "very firmly" for equal rights, and criticised government plans to force faith schools to take up to 25% of pupils from other religions.

The Vatican has made all 10 previous archbishops of Westminster cardinals.

'Huge challenges'

However, Archbishop Nichols may have to wait until Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor turns 80 and no longer has the right to vote in elections for a new pope before taking the title.

The cardinal said the handover was special because the nine previous archbishops had died in office.

"I was just wondering whether I'd reach this day before emulating my predecessors," he said.

Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said he was glad to be handing on the role to someone so "competent, compassionate and experienced".

He said Archbishop Nichols would face "huge challenges but great opportunities" in the diocese.

The archbishop is also likely to become president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales.

He is seen as a good media performer, having commentated on the funeral of Pope John Paul II for the BBC in 2005.

In his new role, he is likely to travel on behalf of the Church and play an important role in deciding policy at the Vatican.

Kevin Flaherty, editor of the Catholic Times newspaper, said the appointment would be warmly welcomed.

"Archbishop Nichols is a dynamic churchman - a wise pastor and strong leader," he said.

"His much-needed leadership qualities will be - in the words of the late Pope John Paul II - a 'sign of contradiction' in an ever increasing secular age."

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