Vatican wants African missionary to replace Hume

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The Independent Online
THE VATICAN has begun making discreet inquiries among Britain's leading Roman Catholics to gauge their response to the man who has become its favourite to succeed Cardinal Basil Hume as Archbishop of Westminster.

He is Fr Michael Louis Fitzgerald, a member of the Missionaries of Africa order known as the White Fathers. The news will come as a surprise to the Catholics of England and Wales among whom the 61-year-old missionary is virtually unknown.

Archbishop Pablo Puente, the Wimbledon-based papal nuncio - whose job it is to draw up the shortlist of three names which is then forwarded to Rome for a final decision - has, in recent days, begun to canvass the name of Fr Fitzgerald, who was born in Walsall but who has worked all his life in Africa or Rome. The nuncio, one of the Vatican's top career diplomats, has also told prominent Catholics he is not prepared to accept any new names for consideration.

Until now Bishop Vincent Nichols, who was Cardinal Hume's auxiliary bishop in North London, was thought to be the front runner. Cardinal Hume let it be known that Bishop Nichols, aged 54, was his favoured successor. But it is understood that the nuncio is now proposing to put him forward for the post of Archbishop of Birmingham.

Fr Fitzgerald, who is telling friends he is the wrong man for the job - because he has spent his entire working life out of Britain, returning only to visit his sister in Stockport - is the senior Englishman in the papal civil service, the Curia. He is secretary for the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. But most significantly, he sits on the Pontifical Justice and Peace Council where he has been particularly involved in issues surrounding refugees, migrants and asylum seekers - a concern which could bring him into conflict with Tony Blair's government.

"He will not be afraid to speak his mind," said one friend. "He is a prayerful man but he is confident in the ways of the world. In his present job he deals with ambassadors, ministers and heads of state. He's a man who does his homework - he never arrives unprepared."

Friends describe him as youthful and energetic. The son of Irish parents who were both doctors, he is "an intellectual - bright but not bookish", said one. He is "a man of few possessions" who continues to live in a community house and was very surprised when he was made a bishop. He is said to be a strong supporter of the changes made at the Second Vatican Council. "His sympathies lie on the progressive wing," said one Vatican insider. "But he is strong on evangelism, though having lived most of his life with non-Christians he is a man of dialogue. He listens."

Last week Fr Fitzgerald's friends said that he was not expecting the appointment. "He is happy in his present job," said one, "though if the Pope asks him he'll accept."