Nichols said that the pandemic had helped him, as the archbishop of a sprawling diocese, to appreciate the importance of “local energies.” He praised the “ingenuity” of Westminster priests.
“I would like to think that in this period we’ve become much less top-down and much more enhancing and supporting local initiatives,” he said.
He is proud of the charitable work across the diocese, led by the energetic Caritas Westminster. He mentioned one parish that was supporting 15 families at the start of the first lockdown in March and is now helping 75. Another parish had increased its food distribution by 400% in the same period.
Nichols was born in 1945 in Crosby, Lancashire, in northwest England. The Catholicism of his childhood was starkly different from that of today.
“For example, when I was a young boy, we would never go near an Anglican church,” he recollected. “We wouldn’t even go into the churchyard, nevermind join in prayers. That was enemy territory.”
As a young priest in Liverpool, he would be accompanied by two men as he took Holy Communion to the sick, in case of possible harassment on the street.
“I’ve gone from that to the situation where we are now, where we see ourselves with other Christian bodies in very close cooperation, in a very shared witness. And it’s broadened out to the presence and the partnership with leaders of other faiths as well,” he said.
One of his most cherished memories as archbishop is accompanying four Muslim leaders -- two Shiite and two Sunni -- to a meeting with Pope Francis in 2017.
“It was very interesting that, as the photographs were lined up, the former Muslim men wanted to be mixed. So they didn’t want two Shia Muslims on one side and two Sunnis on the other. They wanted to show that this was not just a meeting between Christians and Muslims, but between the different Muslim families,” he remembered.
Nichols said that within his lifetime he had seen Catholics in England shake off the legacy of persecution and reclaim a fitting place in public life. At the same time, he noted that the Church’s demographics had changed dramatically, with English and Irish Catholics joined by sizable numbers from Poland, India, Africa, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
“Churches are vibrant. They’re full of very many different cultural characteristics and cultural expressions of faith,” he said. “And I honestly think they probably have deeper, more divergent spiritual roots than when I was a boy. Our way of faith was very much the faith of the Church and the ways of expression of the Church.”
“Now, I think, Catholics are much more at ease in a deeply personal relationship with the Lord, in a spirituality that is more personally rooted. And the societies and the fabric of the Catholic Church is much looser and more diverse than it used to be. And in many ways, it’s more biblical, it’s more personal, it’s more spiritual than it was when I was a boy.”
Nevertheless, the Church has had to continue to fight to be understood in the corridors of power.
“The Catholic Church’s relationship with the political world has changed a lot in my time,” he reflected. “I think to begin with we were pretty much on the fringe. Then, with the growing impact of the quality of Catholic education, political leaders and figures who were Catholics began to emerge and take prominent roles. And that helped to make a kind of almost structured dialogue between politics and the Catholic Church have a bit more substance to it.”
He cited the example of Cardinal Basil Hume, who served as archbishop of Westminster from 1976 to 1999. Hume was invited to become a member of the House of Lords, the second chamber of the U.K. Parliament. He declined the offer because it was intended for him personally, rather than extended to the archbishop of Westminster.
“I think the situation’s changed quite a lot since then,” Nichols said. “The patterns of political influence have become much more dispersed. And the skills of political lobbying are probably not the strongest among us. They are stronger in other lobby groups. And politics, I believe, is much more fragmented now.”
He continued: “Party loyalty is not what it was. It’s much more interest groups and pressure groups. And in that mix, we are not particularly skilled or particularly well-represented. We have our clear lines of major interest. So we are a major partner in the provision of education. And we have a major role, I think, in overseas aid, and in some international issues. But in the day-to-day mix of politics, it’s much more closed, much more blind to the importance of the religious insight and faith.”
The cardinal said that the celebrated address delivered by Benedict XVI at Westminster Hall during his 2010 papal visit to Britain remained “very true.”
“His appeal was that the world of secular thinking, the world of secular politics, needs to be in a thoroughgoing dialogue with the world of religious belief,” Nichols recalled.
“And he said it’s reason that bridges these. So, the world of secular reasoning can benefit from the insights of faith, and the world of faith benefits from the rigors of reasoned argument to protect it from extremism and fundamentalisms.”
“That appeal to a systematic dialogue is something that we work on. But that area has not got any easier in the last 10 years.”