SINCE being restored as an archdiocese by Pope Leo XIII in 1878, only eight men have served as the Archbishop of Glasgow. Soon there will be a ninth. 

The Catholic church in the city has begun the search to replace the late Philip Tartaglia, who passed away last month following a short battle with Covid-19. 

Choosing an archbishop is often a complicated task and, with the faith at something of a crossroads in Scotland, church officials know they have to get it right. 

READ MORE: Philip Tartaglia: Archbishop of Glasgow laid to rest in poignant funeral at St Andrew's Cathedral

Replacing someone of Tartaglia’s stature and popularity – he was described as “fine man” by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – is no easy feat either and, according to precedent, it could take as long as three years.

That, however, is unlikely to be the case this time around and with the world’s leaders  due in Glasgow in November for a climate change conference, the church is understood to want someone in place by then. 

Barrhead News: Philip Tartaglia had been archbishop since 2012 Philip Tartaglia had been archbishop since 2012

The process begins with a consultation period by the papal nuncio – also known as ambassador – to the UK, Claudio Gugerotti. He will canvas opinion across Glasgow and Scotland and then forward a list of, normally, three names to the Congregation for Bishops in the Vatican with his own recommendation. 

The committee will then choose a candidate and pass it onto Pope Francis for approval. 

Who is likely to be on that list is already causing much discussion and some names have already been mooted as likely successors for the Archbishop of Glasgow. 

Chief among them is the current Bishop of Paisley, John Keenan, and there is precedent there. Archbishop Tartaglia also moved from that diocese and, like Keenan, was Glasgow born and bred. 

Having grown up in a high-rise in Maryhill and previously served as a parish priest in Anderton, he has emerged as one of the frontrunners for the role. 

“It would be a big surprise if he didn’t get it,” said Ian Dunn, former editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer. “But, nothing is a foregone conclusion and it could all change. 

Barrhead News: John Keenan has been picked as a frontrunner for the role by some John Keenan has been picked as a frontrunner for the role by some

“Bishop John Keenan is a very impressive figure. He’s very hardworking, full of energy and ideas, and tries to work with all the different parts of the church.

“He’s generally well-respected. It feels like the obvious choice.” 

Bishop Keenan – who previously served as Catholic chaplain at Glasgow University – has been widely praised for his work in Paisley, choosing to live in a housing scheme rather than plush accommodation and for his ability to manage difficult situations. 

However, he was thrown into the spotlight for the diocese’s promotion of ‘gay conversion therapy’ group Courage and as recently as last April was a keynote speaker at its international conference.

His conservative views have caused some concern – a source close to the archdiocese told the Glasgow Times – and it could be seen as one of the few stumbling blocks between the 56-year-old and the role. 

“At the same time, he’s a harder guy to pigeon hole and he tends to go 100% for everything,” Dunn added. 

“He would big on anti-abortion but at the same time be very full throated on anti-trident stuff and issues around inequality and social justice. 

“He is unabashedly Catholic. For historic reasons, it is very easy for Catholics to want to just ‘mind ourselves’ but the fact he doesn’t do that is admired. That takes courage.”

In terms of the other Scottish bishops – usually, but not always, an archbishop is chosen from bishops – the other contenders would likely be Bishop of Aberdeen, Hugh Gilbert, Bishop of Galloway, William Nolan, Bishop of Motherwell, Joseph Toal, or even the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, Brian McGhee. 

Barrhead News: Left to right: Bishop Nolan, Bishop Gilbert, and Bishop Toal are all said to be in the running Left to right: Bishop Nolan, Bishop Gilbert, and Bishop Toal are all said to be in the running

However, each candidate is likely to be held back by limitations Keenan does not have.

For instance, Bishop Gilbert – who is also president of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and read the sermon at Archbishop Tartaglia’s funeral – is formerly a monk and doesn’t hold a doctorate in theology. 

According to the archdiocese, this is one of five requirements for the role. The others being: of outstanding faith; held in good esteem; at least 35 years old; ordained a priest for five years. 

Meanwhile, Bishop Nolan and Bishop Toal are both known to suffer from health issues, which would likely rule them out from the important seat of the church. Albeit, according to sources, Toal has not ruled himself out yet. 

Bishop McGee is understood to be the likeliest of the other choices and there is precedent – Archbishop Donald Campbell (in office 1945 to 1963) was chosen from the diocese of Argyll and the Isles.   

It’s not beyond possibility a surprise choice could emerge from the church in Scotland. 

The Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Leo Cushley, is understood to be on very good terms with Pope Francis, having previously worked in a senior role in the Vatican. 

Barrhead News: Leo Cushley is known to be close to Pope Francis Leo Cushley is known to be close to Pope Francis

As an Airdrie lad, who has served parishes in the diocese of Motherwell, sources close to the archdiocese believe he could want a return to the West Coast. 

“He is likely to want the role as a stepping stone back to Rome,” a source said. “Scotland is due a Cardinal [it hasn’t had one since the disgraced Keith O’Brien died in 2018].” 

But Dunn disagreed. 

“That would be tremendous snub for Edinburgh,” he said. “Catholicism is maybe a bigger part of Glasgow’s history but that would be a tremendous blow. It will never happen.

“Cushley was a Vatican diplomat and the suspicion has always been that he will return there.” 

Regardless of who is chosen for the role, it’s no secret it will be challenging – if rewarding – with a host of issues facing the archdiocese. 

As well as declining numbers, some parishes may have to close as part of a restructure and this is generally pretty contested, like we reported last year with the closure of St Clare’s in Easterhouse. 

READ MORE: St Clare's: Unholy row over Glasgow church axe plan

There is also the small matter of emerging from the pandemic and the continued uncertainty of the position churches will be in when we do. 

“Like everything else you just don’t know what the world is going to look like after Covid,” said Dunn. “Do the people who were going before come back? A lot of research shows when people stop going for whatever reason they just get out of the habit and don’t come back. Although, this is an unusual enforced situation.”