ON MONDAY, the ninth anniversary of the installation of Archbishop Peter Smith, it was announced that Pope Francis had appointed Bishop John Wilson to succeed him as Archbishop of Southwark, as Archbishop Peter has passed the statutory retirement age for clergy of 75 years.
The present-day Archdiocese of Southwark covers the whole of south London and the county of Kent. It was one of the original dioceses set up by Blessed Pius IX in 1850 when the hierarchy of residential bishops was restored, but until 1882 it also contained Hampshire and the Channel Islands, and until 1965 Surrey and Sussex (when these last two were detached the bishop was raised to the rank of archbishop). As a ‘metropolitan see’ it is therefore senior, along with Westminster, Liverpool, Birmingham and Cardiff and its pastor a leading member of the hierarchy in this country. As you know the centre of diocesan life is St George’s Cathedral, near the Imperial War Museum.
Bishop John Wilson has been an auxiliary bishop in the Arch-diocese of Westminster since 2015, responsible for west London. He was originally a priest of the diocese of Leeds, having been born in Sheffield in 1968 (for the first time all your clergy in this parish will be accountable to a bishop younger than them…). He studied at the university of Leeds and was trained for the priest-hood at the English College in Rome. After initial postings in parishes in the Leeds’ diocese he taught moral theology for some years at the seminary at Ushaw near Durham, and in that period gained a PhD from Durham university. Back in Leeds for just over two years he was ‘Apostolic Administrator’ of the diocese between bishops prior to returning to a parish and then coming to London four years ago. In Westminster he has for most of his time as bishop been responsible for Education, a major responsibility in the largest diocese in the country. He is to be installed as archbishop on Thursday 25 July, the feast of St James the Apostle.
Archbishop Peter, now about to embark on a well-earned retirement, has made a major contribution to the life of the Church in this country – originally from Battersea, he was Rector of the seminary at Wonersh for many years and then Bishop of East Anglia and Archbishop of Cardiff; we last saw him here when he presided at Canon Jack Madden’s funeral in January 2017.
In the Catholic Church a changeover in diocesan bishops is a major event. To begin with it happens less often than is true of the leadership of the Anglican and Free churches, partly because of the higher retirement age – between 1903 and 2003 there were only three diocesan bishops here. The event also teaches us something about the nature of the universal Church. Some features of what happens may seem obvious, but they are nevertheless important: although it hasn’t always been true, new bishops are freely appointed by the Pope – and not by the State.
Thank Goodness, the State isn’t involved at all in this country. The Holy See consults widely (and confidentially) before appointments are made, through the papal nuncio, and the Vatican body known as the Congregation for Bishops (of which Cardinal Nichols is a member) makes the final recommendation to the Holy Father. No one would claim that the system is perfect, but some others which are around seem a lot less perfect (like appointment by the State or publicly contested elections).
The key role played by the pope is what really matters. The Catholic Church in England and Wales is part of the worldwide Church – it is not the Church of England and Wales, but in England and Wales. John Wilson will be the Archbishop of Southwark, and the successor of the apostles in South London and Kent because he is in communion with the pope, the successor of Peter and Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth. It is because we are part of the worldwide Church, like the Church in Nigeria, in Goa, in Scotland, in Malta, in Ireland and everywhere else on earth. In spite of modern communications it is easy for us to lose sight of this, to get bogged down in our own concerns and forget that we’re always part of something so much bigger than this parish or the Catholic Church in this country.
The Southwark archdiocese, like everywhere else, faces big challenges. Fewer priests than in the past, decline in numbers at Mass in most places, less money than in the past, growing poverty both in urban and rural areas, the menace of racism and nationalism, the needs of migrants and refugees, the urgent need to combat theological illiteracy and many other problems will be on Bishop John’s desk. Please support him with your prayers as he prepares to take over next month, and pray also for Archbishop Peter and give thanks for his ministry.