Pope names new Archbishop of Westminister

LONDON (Reuters) - Pope Benedict has appointed Birmingham Archbishop Vincent Nichols to be the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Vatican said on Friday.

Newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols gestures during a news conference in London April 3, 2009. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

Nichols, 63, will become the new Archbishop of Westminster, succeeding Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, 76, who is retiring.

Nichols told reporters he “just swallowed hard and said ‘yes’” when he was asked to take on the new role.

He said he knew well the “challenges and demands” of the task ahead, having worked eight years as an auxiliary bishop to the late Cardinal Basil Hume.

Traditionally, the Archbishop of Westminster is made a cardinal, meaning he will enter the elite group of the pope’s closest advisers around the world.

Cardinals under 80 can enter a secret conclave to choose a new pontiff, meaning that after he is made a cardinal Nichols will almost certainly have a say in the election of the next leader of the 1.1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.

Cormac, who is the first Archbishop of Westminster to retire in the post since the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the 19th century, will stand down on May 21.

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Nichols, who has been archbishop of Birmingham since 2000, paid tribute to his predecessor’s “robust leadership ... his openness and humility.”

One of Nichol’s first tasks will be to ensure “the church is always open to new frontiers,” helping individuals and families grow in faith, he said.

Another was to use faith to bring together people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds living in Britain.

Nichols studied at the Venerable English College in Rome and was ordained a priest in 1969.

He also studied at the Gregorian University in Rome, Manchester University and Loyola University in Chicago.

Pope John Paul made him a bishop in 1992.

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During that time, he served in the influential role of the general secretary of Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and became a Church power broker in his own right.

Initially considered too liberal, Nichols has worked hard to portray himself as more conservative in recent years, eager to portray himself as a loyalist, supportive of the Vatican and the Pope.

Described in the media as dynamic and energetic, he has spoken out on thorny issues such as clerical paedophile abuse in Britain.

A football fan, he was born in Liverpool, the son of teachers and as a child wanted to be a lorry driver but felt the calling to become a priest when he was a teenager.

Reporting by Avril Ormsby and Philip Pullella: Editing by Keith Weir