Father Timothy Radcliffe, 46, was yesterday elected as Master of the Order at an international convention of Dominican friars in Guadalupe, Mexico, after 170 delegates isolated themselves from the rest of the world for a week of discussion and prayer.
Fr Timothy will be the eighty- fourth successor to St Dominic, a Spaniard who founded the order at the bidding of Pope Honorius III. With the Jesuits, the Black Friars, as they were known in Britain, were the intellectual elite of the Roman Catholic church. The top position has been held mostly by Spaniards and Italians with occasional representatives from Ireland and Germany.
Fr Timothy, formerly the Provincial of the Dominican Order in Britain, is no stranger to controversy. He was one of several Dominican friars who sparked establishment opprobrium in the mid-1980s after being openly critical of Thatcherite values. He has also taken part in anti-nuclear demonstrations and protests against the community charge. Father John Mills, a close friend, said last night: 'I cried when I heard the news. He is an immensely articulate man of great personal charm, who really cares about the problems of others.
'What makes his election all the more remarkable is that, in the past, he has not been afraid to stand up and speak his mind.'
This years's election is given special significance because it marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the first Christian priest, a Dominican friar, to the New World, along with Christopher Columbus.
Fr John said that the election of an Englishman at such a significant point in the order's history signalled the increasing influence of delegates from developing countries. 'Timothy's concerns about the need for social justice have found particular resonance with Dominicans in the Third World,' he said.
Fr Timothy will remain as head of the order for the next nine years.