The full text of our interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols ahead of the beatification of Pope John Paul II
How was the royal wedding?
I was offered a privileged seat which was a tribute to the relationships and from within the choir therefore I was able to share quite profoundly what was a really solemn moment. I think what struck me were the two points at which the crowd cheered right at the heart of the abbey. It was very remarkable when it happened. The first [instance] was when the two exchanged their promises. So when Catherine said ‘I will’ there was a great cheer. People recognised the solemnity of the promises that were being made. The second was when the Archbishop of Canterbury said ‘So in the sight of God and these people I now declare you man and wife’ and there was a great cheer.
There is popular recognition that marriage is a fresh start. That this from now on was something different and it was a profound change in the life of both those young people. And everybody recognises it. I think that gives lie to the idea that marriage is of little consequence in our society. It clearly is of great consequence in the eyes of people witnessing and taking part in that marriage yesterday.
What does tomorrow mean for you?
Tomorrow, in a way, is a celebration of the same love that William and Catherine promised to each other–yesterday in marriage, today in service of priest, bishop and Pope–but it’s the same well-spring of love that comes from God that we see on both days.
Clearly with John Paul, it’s a recognition of love that found a mature expression. We look back on that and say without doubt this is an exemplary of living the gift of the spirit of love. That is what a beatification means: Here is a model of Christian loving and of what Christian living means for us. I suppose in the heart of John Paul’s witness, I would place the virtue of courage. I think his very first words on election, on coming out on the balcony were, ‘Do not be afraid’.
He showed that courage right through his life as a young man, as an actor, as somebody preparing for priesthood, as a bishop; in conditions of great adversity he showed that courage. He showed the same courage as Pope, a bishop and a Christian. He said ‘Do not be afraid to let Christ into your lives’, into the realm of politics, into the realm of international relations.
In fact it was the cry that was echoed by Pope Benedict when he was inaugurated when he said, ‘By letting Christ into our lives we lose absolutely nothing’. It is that courage that overcomes fear, and certainly in the life of John Paul II, very visibly overcame the fear of illness, incapacity and death. For me, he would be the fearless one.
Do you have any personal memories of John Paul II that stand out for you?
He had a great sense of humour. I remember at one of the meetings of the synod of bishops when I was an assistant secretary or something in the synod hall the cardinals wd be sitting in the front two rows and on the Wednesday session I think a lot of the cardinals assumed that the Pope wouldn’t be present and they were missing. There were empty rows. At the break John Paul stood up and he tapped the microphone. He said: ‘As my old philosophy tutor used to say, I can see the absentees.’
More specifically, what does Pope John Paul II’s beatification mean for England and Wales?
I don’t think anybody who was present for his visit in 1982 will ever forget it. It was quite different to the recent visit of Pope Benedict, because that was a visit that was focused primarily on the Catholic community and the celebration of sacraments. But his trip ran through England Scotland and Wales. It was remarkable for the vigour and the panache with which he made the Catholic life and truth and celebration so present in the heart of our country and the different places that he visited. There was that vigour and style that he had and also his stamina, because it was a remarkable tour de force which he showed in many, many countries, where he could hold huge crowds, time after time after time.
I spent a lot of our visit in the BBC television centre and I know the people who were there were quite astonished, not just by the charismatic presence that he had but by the fact that he could sustain this for nine days. He was very clearly drawing on strength that was virtually unquenchable and that came across as a huge encouragement to people spiritually, especially to young people.
There has been criticism of his legacy, especially on questions of abuse and quite a few people have said that we should wait with the beatification. Do you think he did enough to combat abuse in the Church?
I think beatification about a person’s holiness. It’s not a reward for being a good Pope. It’s not a prize for good management. It’s an acclamation that this person was close to God and in his life and work showed us some of the attributes of God, God’s creativeness and his abundant mercy and I think that is the only context to really reflect profoundly on the moment of beatification.
Another criticism that has been levelled at Pope John Paul II is that he moved away from the renovating spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Do you think that is a fair criticism?
I was just reading in his spiritual testament, which were these very personal notes which he wrote in the last 10 years of life at the end of his annual retreats so they were reflections on his life. There were some very interesting things in one there were quite a powerful couple of sentences in which he reflected on how divine providence saved him from the assassin’s bullet and how from that moment onwards he felt as his life had been given to him afresh or rather it was lived far more closely with the Lord. He had, I think, a very reflective nature that could easily have led him to be a contemplative.
In that same testament he speaks a number of times of the great grace of the Second Vatican Council and what a privilege it was to live through and with that grace. But it is the nature of the Church to take the grace of the council, as John Paul II always spoke of the Second Vatican Council, and live it and explore it and be changed with it. The council is not, as it were, a fixed object that kind of captures neither the present nor the future of the Church but it is a moment of grace and of inspiration out of which the Church must continue to live as it faces a changing world. There is no doubt at all that the world has changed enormously in the years since the Second Vatican Council and having had a Second Vatican Council does not somehow shelter the Church from those changes or having to react or respond to those changes.