Roman Catholics Are Urged to 'Remain Brave and Courageous' as Archbishop Prepares to Step Down; Cardiff Cleric Is Front-Runner for Top Church Job

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Byline: Martha Linden

THE Archbishop of Westminster signals today that the Vatican will shortly make an announcement on who will replace him as leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales.

The Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, is a front-runner to replace Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, 76, who is set to become the first Archbishop of Westminster to retire in post since the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in the 19th century.

The Cardinal is today urging Roman Catholics to remain "brave and courageous" in professing the faith as he prepared to step down, saying it was difficult for people to hear and experience the presence of God in a "very secular" society.

In his pastoral letter, he adds: "Yet everywhere I go - and I meet people who are not necessarily fellow Catholic or Christian - they often want to talk to me about the meaning of their life, the hopes they have for themselves and their children.

"Our message, which is the message of Good News for the poor,amessage of hope and meaning for everyone, is so important that we should understand that each one of us has to be brave, courageous, in the profession of our faith."

A series of names have been the focus of speculation as possible successors to the role of Archbishop of Westminster, with the Archbishop of Cardiff a leading contender.

The Most Rev Peter Smith is viewed as a "safe pair of hands" by the Catholic Church and a good media performer.

He acted as spokesman for the Church on sensitive and complex issues such as euthanasia and abortion, and the handling of legislation to force Catholic adoption agencies to consider gay couples.

He was born in Battersea, south west London and studied law at Exeter University.

He was ordained to the priesthood in 1972.

Described as hugely popular and sociable, the 65-year-old clergyman, known as a smoker, was made Archbishop of Cardiff in 2001 following the resignation of Archbishop John Ward amid scandal and recriminations about paedophile priests in the diocese.

He had previously been Bishop of East Anglia.

He has a reputation for speaking frankly and just this week blamed the Pope's press advisers for a series of public relations disasters.

The 86-year-old Pope came under fire this month for warning that the spread of HIV/Aids could be "aggravated" through condom distribution, while there were further damaging headlines in January when Holocaust-denying British-born Bishop Richard Williamson's excommunication was lifted. …