Death of Cardinal Hume: Pope must now decide who will be a suitable successor

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CARDINAL HUME'S death will result in a lengthy and involved procedure to select a successor, made all the more difficult by his popularity and stature.

The Pope's ambassador in Britain, Pablo Puente, the Apostolic Nuncio, will nominate three names for the Pope to decide on in secret. The Pope could either accept one of the candidates or consult further.

Last night there was speculation as to who would succeed Cardinal Hume as the leader of Britain's four million Catholics.

"The field is very open. There is no clear front-runner," said John Wilkins, editor of Catholic journal The Tablet.

"To fill Cardinal Hume's spiritual shoes and to draw up a pastoral plan to try and stem the people leaving the church is going to be a very difficult job."

Those named as possible successors include the Most Rev Patrick Kelly, Archbishop of Liverpool; the Right Rev Peter Smith, Bishop of East Anglia; the Right Rev Vincent Nichols, auxiliary Bishop of Westminster; Father Timothy Radcliffe, Superior General of the Dominican Order; and the Right Rev Cormac Murphy O'Connor, Bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

The Abbot of Ampleforth, the Right Rev Timothy Wright, has also been mentioned as a possible candidate though some believe that is only because of his link with Ampleforth, where Cardinal Hume was Abbot.

The Archbishop Puente, who has only been in London since September 1997, is believed to have a genuinely open mind and will consider all the suggestions and nominations he receives.

Under the rules of the selection process, all nominees must be at least 35 years old and must have been ordained priests for at least five years. They are also required to display a number of sought after qualities, including "strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls and wisdom".

Cardinal Hume was uprooted suddenly in March 1976 from his Benedictine monastery in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, to be Archbishop of Westminster. Whether the church would again wish appoint such an "anonymous" person remains unclear.

Archbishop Kelly is seen as having some advantage, as Liverpool is a Roman Catholic stronghold and produced Cardinal Heenan, the previous Archbishop of Westminster.

Bishop Nichols, the youngest of three who are not monks, also has links with Liverpool, and is seen as having very good ties with the Vatican.

Father Radcliffe is considered by many to be Cardinal Hume's protege.