Watch this space: if I’m right, that’s the kind of bishop we should now get

Last August, the new Apostolic Nuncio to Great Britain, Archbishop Antonio Mennini, gave an interview about his time as nuncio in Russia, in which he strongly defended the Russian Orthodox church against an anti-clerical backlash caused by the Orthodox fight against secularism and against its so far remarkably successful determination to regain its place in Russian society.

This gave me some hope for the effectiveness of his mission here. This (if I may be forgiven for quoting myself) is what I said on his appointment to London:

[The interview is] all fairly good and hopeful stuff, which encourages one to hope that he will be using his obvious capacity to work out what’s going on in a particular secularised culture to help the Church here to begin the fightback in the most effective way open to him – that is, by helping the Pope to appoint bishops who will do everything they can to implement rather than to undermine the Holy Father’s agenda.

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All this may be wishful thinking. But maybe not. It could be that Rome has worked out, at last, what kind of nuncio we need, and is duly sending him. Fingers crossed.

Well, we shall see what we shall see: the real test will be in the kind of names he puts on his ternas, and on what kind of bishops we start getting from Rome. But the straws in the wind seem to be flying the right way so far. The need for the fight of the Church here to be against secularism (both in society and also within the Church itself) seems to have been picked up already by the new nuncio. In commenting on his first address to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Damian Thompson invites us to “read between the lines” of what Archbishop Mennini had to say. I shall return to Damian’s comment presently, for he has spotted something important, I think. I have also been trying to spot the real message underlying the usual smooth diplomat’s patter, and I think I have found something too; and it is what I was hoping to find: the clear message that he wants (and more importantly that the Pope wants) an English Church less bounded by the spirit of the age, more concerned with a vision of life perceived sub specie aeternitatis, in the perspective of eternity: a Church capable of fighting secularism by offering a vision of eternal life, a Church in other words in which soteriology, the theology of salvation, is at the root of what we are offering a despiritualised secular society. He firmly recalled the bishops to Pope Benedict’s vision of the mission of the Church:

“As Pope Benedict XVI has said on many occasions, we live in a secularised world where everything seems to be relative and nothing is acknowledged as absolute. While addressing all of you at his meeting with the Bishops of England, Scotland and Wales in the chapel of St Mary’s College, Oscott, on the occasion of his historic visit last September, he recalled how recently he was able to welcome you to Rome for the Ad Limina visits of the two Episcopal Conferences during which he spoke with you ‘about some challenges you face as you lead your people in faith, particularly regarding the urgent need to proclaim the Gospel afresh in a highly secularised environment’. He also added: ‘In the course of my visit it has become clear to me how deep a thirst there is among the British people for the Good News of Jesus Christ. You have been chosen by God to offer them the living water of the Gospel, encouraging them to place hopes, not in the vain enticements of this world, but in the firm assurances of the next’.”

As Damian Thompson rightly observes in his Telegraph blog: “This nuncio seems to have a very clear agenda, and it is that of the Holy Father, which makes a nice change.” Damian rightly draws attention to “the very firm emphasis on the ordinariate”: the Pope, said Archbishop Mennini, had reminded him (note his repeated references to the Pope’s agenda) that “he had asked you [the bishops] to be ‘generous in implementing the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus’. In his name, I wish to thank all of you for the way you have meticulously carried out that mandate.”

“Nicely put,” comments Damian. “The bishops have (mostly) toed the line over the ordinariate, but being meticulous (from the Latin for ‘timid’) is not the same thing as being generous. Note, too, the nuncio’s emphasis on evangelisation, which is hardly a preoccupation of the antiquated public-sector machinery of Eccleston Square.”

It is all very hopeful, I think. The nuncio, of course, can’t have a direct influence on the way the bishops run their dioceses. But he is in a unique position to advise Rome over the appointment of their future colleagues and over their own possible promotion to even higher things, as he cleverly reminded them by congratulating Bishop Stack on his translation to Cardiff (not, of course, an appointment with which he had anything to do). He will have great influence over the future shape of the Church in this country. “As you know,” he reminded them, “there are other dioceses (also in Scotland) that need to be provided for. The Apostolic Nunciature has paid deserved attention to these ‘Provvistas’ and will continue to do so, and perhaps we might be having other appointments in the near future.”

He will not go unopposed in what is clearly his ambition to help give us faithful bishops “chosen by God to offer [the British people] the living water of the Gospel, encouraging them to place hopes, not in the vain enticements of this world, but in the firm assurances of the next”. He will undoubtedly make it his aim to seek out good, orthodox and holy men, and will give their names to Rome. But in Rome, these names will go before the Congregation for Bishops: and it is to be expected that one particular member of that dicastery might, unless the danger is spotted, be given a possibly disproportionate influence over English and Welsh appointments: could such a disproportionate influence, for instance, explain why Bishop Stack – whom Cardinal Cormac (a member of the Congregation, of course) had himself appointed an auxiliary bishop in the Westminster diocese – was appointed to Cardiff in the absence of a nuncio here?

It will be important that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the new prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and another firm supporter of Pope Benedict, should be aware of such dangers; if he is, and if Archbishop Mennini’s clear vision for the future of the Church’s mission in this country is allowed to prevail, it really could be that we will, one sunny day, break free from the Babylonian captivity imposed by the secularising tendency which has too often seemed to characterise the leadership of the Church in this country.

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