‘This society is not secular’ The new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, tells Daniel Johnson about his vision of English Catholicism
Daniel Johnson: I’ve noticed that since you took office, we’ve had an interesting change in the way in which Catholicism in England has presented itself. I’m thinking of two or three specific things. One is the relics of Saint Thérèse, which you’ve welcomed into the county and have had an amazing response. The second is miracles. You had a press conference recently in which you spoke with Jack Sullivan, who had undergone an extraordinary transformation as a result of the intercession of Cardinal Newman. Third, you’ve also been very excited about the new exhibition at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real, which has also had a great echo. Is there a deliberate policy at work here or is it pure coincidence that these things have taken place on your watch? Vincent Nichols: I think it’s coincidence really. I certainly had nothing to do with the exhibition at the National Gallery, which had already been many years in preparation. Obviously, as a group of bishops we had talked about the relics of St Thérèse and the visit of Jack Sullivan did seem to me to be a proper thing to do. I think that all three help us to capture again the wholeness that is promised in God’s presence in the Incarnation and then in the unfolding in that gift of God in our flesh in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As for the relics you mention, I was in the Cathedral early one morning and someone just said to me: “Isn’t this remarkable? We’re seeing here Catholics do what Catholics do instinctively.” And it was a very remarkable time when over and over again what was visible in the public sphere was something of the intimacy of the relationship between the disciple and the master and God. People came because in Thérèse of Lisieux, they were given great permission to be themselves. I think that it was Thérèse’s experience and insight that what God wants above all is to love us for what we are. That’s what people respond and latch on to. I think they know that her lesson was that despite all the vulnerability and confusion in our lives there is a welcome and a passion that invites us to just take a step nearer. At the bishops’ conference, we talked about spirituality, the truths of faith and the life of devotion. All three need to be held together. In the last 20 years, we have probably neglected the devotional life. But it is here that the heart speaks most eloquently.
As for miracles, the presence of Jack Sullivan was important to us because he was a down-to-earth regular guy, as the Americans would say. He was at pains to say that he got a gift of God, just when he was at his weakest. He said it was only when he had no more strength, when the medical process had come to an end, God came to help. That and the relics help us become a little bit more comfortable with our own vulnerability and own woundedness. That leads on to the exhibition. If I may concentrate on just one figure, that of the dead Christ. It is an absolutely stark presentation of broken, wounded humanity. My view is that this represents a sphere of human experience from which we so often just shy away. But here it is presented to us in its starkness. It is to be found in many a prison cell, many a torture chamber, many a battlefield, and trauma centres in many hospitals. This is a truth—and it’s terrible, but it’s true. It’s a redemptive truth because it tells us that God enters into the worst and most vulnerable parts of human experience and can do something with them which we can’t ever do. DJ: Your mention of Jack Sullivan brings us to the subject of Cardinal Newman, who is one of the great figures of English letters and thought, but we still struggle to see him, particularly nonCatholics, as a great spiritual leader and a living presence. But this year he will be beatified, the first figure of its kind since St Thomas More, not counting the English Catholic Martyrs. It will be an event of truly global significance. What does Newman mean to you and why should people still be interested today? VN: It’s a huge topic, with many layers. At one level, in academia, Newman is much studied and highly regarded, particularly in Germany and America. Every university in the US has a Newman society or centre. There was a very interesting article by [Cardinal] Avery Dulles about the three conversions in Newman’s life. The first was at 15, when (like many people today) he embraced a sort of natural religion. This was a sense of right and wrong: a sense of God as an adjudicator of all that goes on. But Newman’s first conversion was from that point to a sense of God as a personal God, a person to whom he could relate, to whom he could open up his life and from whom he could gain a strength and grace and sense of purpose. That was when he decided to serve God in the Church in a celibate manner. That was when Newman became in some ways evangelical. Then his second conversion was once he began to grapple with “the non-dogmatic principle” of his age: liberalism. This
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