LONDON—Pope John Paul II has appointed Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor as archbishop of Westminster and primate of the English Church.

The Feb. 15 appointment ended months of speculation following the death of Cardinal Hume in June.

The new primate has served 23 years as bishop of Arundel and Brighton - a diocese covering the Southeast corner of England. Some commentators suggested that the appointment of Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor was a stopgap. At 67, he will have to offer his retirement at the age of 75.

Westminster Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Nichols, 54, was viewed as a more likely choice. Instead, Bishop Nichols was named archbishop of Birmingham, also on Feb. 15.

Aware of the age factor, Bishop Murphy-O'Connor told journalists, “Although I am not as young as I was when I first became a bishop, I now undertake this new task with equal willingness, encouraged as I know I will be by the good wishes and prayers of so very many people.”

He also acknowledged that “Christian practice and the Christian message have been diminished in England and Wales over recent years.

“The Church believes that Christian faith is the potent force that allows us to be freed from a view of the world that ultimately can enslave us. The people of our country have to learn again what it is to wonder at the gifts of God.”

Viewed as a theological centrist, Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor is possessed of a light pastoral touch that has already endeared him to Anglicans through his work, since 1982, as the Catholic chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. He has also been chairman of the Department for Mission and Unity of the Catholic Bishops'Conference of England and Wales.

As bishop of Arundel and Brighton, he extended a warm welcome to former Anglican clerics who became Catholics over the ordination of women and other issues that have badly divided Anglicans in recent years. This was not the case in all English dioceses.

Father David Goddard, a married ex-vicar and custodian of the diocese's Marian Shrine, was one of 12 men ordained by the bishop.

“He gave us a wonderful welcome, and he also had the vision to see what we could bring to the Catholic Church,” Father Goddard told the Register.

He added, “The bishop showed great generosity to ourselves and our families. It is interesting that half of the men he ordained were married.”

Another who praised him was John Wilkins, editor of The Tablet, the London-based weekly journal with a liberal bent who said, “He is every-body's favorite bishop.”

Second-generation Irish, Cormac Murphy-O'Connor was born in 1932 in Reading, Berkshire, the fifth son of Dr. George Murphy-O'Connor and his wife, Ellen. He still speaks with an accent described as “upper crust Irish.”

He trained for the priesthood at the English College in Rome and earned degrees in philosophy and theology at Gregorian University. He was ordained in Rome in 1956.

In the summer of 1966, he became private secretary to Portsmouth Bishop Derek Worlock, who would later become archbishop of Liverpool.

In 1967, the Holy See appointed Father Murphy-O'Connor rector of the English College in Rome. It was in that role that he acted as a host to Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan on his historic visit to Pope Paul VI in 1977.

Later that year Father Murphy-O'Connor was appointed bishop of Arundel and Brighton.

Paul Burnell writes from Birmingham, England.