When Archbishop Antonio Mennini was first appointed as papal nuncio, we all had a good look at his record, for clues as to what his policy would be in one of the the most important areas of a nuncio’s work: making recommendations to the Congregation for Bishops and the Holy Father as to who to appoint to dioceses which become vacant. We were all well aware what the explanation was of the great conundrum, for the English Church, about the reign of John Paul II: why was it, when he had appointed most of our bishops, did nearly all of them go out of their way to undermine his vision for the Church? The answer was that a succession of nuncios had “gone native”, and had advised the Holy Father to appoint the men suggested to him by our own existing bishops, and especially by Cardinal Hume and then Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor: in other words, nuncios had been agents for the continuing project of the English bishops endlessly to perpetuate themselves and their de-Romanising, even secularising, vision for the English Church.
On Archbishop Mennini’s appointment, I hopefully speculated that an interview he had given in Russia (where he had previously been nuncio) might indicate that he was firmly behind the Pope’s agenda on the fight against secularisation, and might, therefore, be on-side when it came to the appointment of bishops here who would similarly be of the papal mind, on this and other key elements in the Ratzingerian analysis of where the Church needs to go. It was, I said, “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.”
Well, the appointment of Mgr Philip Egan could hardly be a more striking demonstration that that is precisely what Archbishop Mennini does intend. To Portsmouth, the diocese in England where more than in any other the subversion of everything Pope John Paul stood for has proceeded unchecked ever since the appointment of its present bishop in 1989, the Holy Father has appointed the right-hand man of Bishop Mark Davies, probably the most passionately orthodox bishop in England today. You will remember, perhaps, the Tablet’s speculation about Cardinal Cormac’s dismay at his appointment as Bishop of Shrewsbury: “Bishop Davies’s appointment has certainly delighted conservatives”, said the Tablet blog; “he recently handed the running of a parish to a traditionalist group, who exclusively celebrate the old rite. It would appear that Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was absent when the congregation [of bishops] settled on Bishop Davies for Shrewsbury. ‘That’ll teach me to miss the plane’, he is said to have quipped.”
When I reported in this column that Bishop Davies had agreed to the establishment of a foundation of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest at the threatened landmark Church of Ss Peter and Paul, New Brighton, as a centre for the celebration of Holy Mass and the other Sacraments in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and as a centre for Eucharistic devotion and Adoration, I noted that this represented another very considerable episcopal surge in a generally Ratzingerian direction, and expressed the hope that “We may now… look forward to a series of such [episcopal] appointments from the new nuncio”. “This is, I hope and assume,” I continued, “the way things are now going”.
Well, it seems, fingers crossed, that I was right. The choice of Mgr Philip Egan to succeed Bishop Crispian Hollis at Portsmouth is Archbishop Mennini’s first real appointment (it is generally thought that the appointment of Mgr Peter Brignall as the new Bishop of Wrexham was probably already in the pipeline), and it is a cracker. If you want an idea of Mgr Egan’s theology, you might like to look here at a talk he gave in 2009, on the authority of Humanae Vitae (in which he argued that its teaching was proclaimed infallibly from the ordinary Magisterium).
From his appointment, we can deduce a number of things. First, that Archbishop Mennini has considerable respect for Bishop Davies, who he clearly sees as the kind of bishop we need more of in this country: he almost certainly found out about Mgr Egan, who has so far maintained a fairly low profile, from Bishop Davies: the fact that he has followed his advice shows what kind of bishop he is now looking to appoint.
The Congregation for Bishops (which in Cardinal Marc Ouellet now has a firmly Ratzingerian prefect, who may well with this appointment be confirming that England’s problems have at last been noticed in Rome) will soon be making a good number of other episcopal appointments in England, and they will be relying on Archbishop Mennini’s advice. East Anglia is vacant; Plymouth, Brentwood and quite a few other dioceses will soon likewise be sede vacante; a good third of the dioceses of England will over the next year or so have new bishops. There seems now to be a reasonable hope that in 10 years’ time the bishops’ conference will have a very different look about it. We all know (and most of us could come up with a longish list) of good, faithful priests worthy to be appointed bishop, who in the bad old days would never even have been considered for “promotion” to episcopal rank, precisely because of their known fidelity to the authority of the Magisterium. Now, it seems, there has been a most wondrous change; things are looking more hopeful for the mission of the English Church than they have for many years.