Vincent Gerard Nichols was born in Crosby, Lancashire, to Henry Joseph and Mary (née Russell) Nichols, both teachers. As a child he wanted to be a lorry driver, but felt a calling to the priesthood as a teenager.
He attended St Mary's College, Crosby, from 1956 to 1963. From St. Mary's he entered the Venerable English College, Rome. He was ordained for the Archdiocese of Liverpool on 21 December 1969 by Archbishop Paul Marcinkus. He obtained the STL degree from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 1970.
Upon his return to Britain, Nichols studied at the University of Manchester for a year and earned an MA degree in Theology in 1971, specialising in the theology of St. John Fisher. He then served as assistant pastor at St Mary's Church, Wigan, as well as chaplain to St John Rigby College, Wigan, and St Peter's Catholic High School, Wigan.
He received a MEd degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1974 and was assigned to St. Anne's Church in Edge Hill in 1975. Father Nichols spent a total of 14 years in the Liverpool archdiocese. In 1980, he was appointed director of the Upholland Northern Institute. He also sat on the archiepiscopal council.
Nichols served as General Secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales (CBCEW) from 1984 to 1993. In addition to his role within the CBCEW, he was moderator of the Steering Committee of the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland from 1989 to 1996. He was chairman of the Catholic Education Service from 1998.