Queen Elizabeth II: A Catholic Appreciation

This weekend world Anglophiles, such as yours truly, are enjoying the celebrations surrounding the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.  For those who wish to watch some of the events taking place this weekend in London, the BBC (including BBC America here in the U.S.) and the CBC are two of the best places to see live coverage of the numerous ceremonies.  I am particularly looking forward to seeing the Thames Pageant tomorrow morning before mass, in which over 1,000 vessels of all sorts will float down the Thames in London in honor of the Queen.

However as we discussed during the recording of the Catholic Weekend show today over at SQPN, one thing which is often overlooked with respect to the reign of the present Queen is the gracious effort she has made to reach out to Catholics.  She has done so in ways which some of her ancestors, such as Elizabeth I, would have found surprising, to say the least.  Anti-Catholicism has long been a problem in Britain, and it sill exists in some places. However in leading by example the Queen has shown what it means to be a true lady: someone who is welcoming, knows who she is, treats others with the respect they deserve and is deserving of respect in return.

The Queen is, of course, the head of the Church of England, which is something a bit hard for Americans to get their heads around, at times.  Imagine the President of the United States also being the head of your religion, and you get something of an idea.  The history of Catholicism in Britain since the split with Rome is one marked by a great deal of tragedy and centuries of legally-enshrined discrimination, which probably to the surprise of many of my readers still exists at the present time.

And yet despite this, it is worth pointing to the outreach that this Queen and the Popes have made to one another over the past several decades.  For example, she met with Pope Pius XII while she was still Princess Elizabeth; she also had a private visit with Blessed Pope John XXIII in 1962. In 1980 Elizabeth II made a state visit to meet with (now Blessed) Pope John Paul II, during the course of which she formally invited John Paul II to come on a pastoral visit to Britain.  Accordingly, Blessed John Paul II came to visit in 1982, an event which was considered an extraordinary success as well as an historic first, as the first sitting pope to visit the United Kingdom.

During the Church’s Jubilee year of 2000 the Queen came to visit Pope John Paul in the Vatican again, in commemoration of their first meeting twenty years earlier. By this time of course the Pope was already visibly suffering the long, painful decline in his health, but the Queen appeared as radiant and happy to see him as she had been twenty years earlier. At their meeting the Pope acknowledged the difficult past between the Vatican and Britain, but noted that “in recent years there has emerged between us a cordiality more in keeping with the harmony of earlier times and more genuinely expressive of our common spiritual roots.”  I daresay that part of that cordiality stemmed from the personality of the woman seated across from him as he gave his remarks.

When John Paul II died five years later, the Queen’s example was mirrored in the actions of her government and her son. Not only did the British Prime Minister attend the Pope’s funeral, which is something in and of itself, but many may not remember that Prince Charles actually postponed his wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles so that he could attend the Pope’s funeral and represent the British Crown. The Queen herself issued a statement at his death offering her condolences, and noting the work that the Pope had done, trying to bring peace around the world. No doubt Henry VIII was spinning in his grave when he heard that.

Afterwards of course, came the historic state visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain in 2010, when he met with the Queen for the first time at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, and later made his exceptional address in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament in London. When they met, in her welcoming speech the Queen acknowledged that the Pope would be beatifying Cardinal John Henry Newman, probably the most seminal figure in the rebirth of Catholicism in Britain, during his visit. “I know that reconciliation was a central theme in the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman,” she noted, “for whom you will be holding a Mass of Beatification on Sunday. A man who struggled with doubt and uncertainty, his contribution to the understanding of Christianity continues to influence many. I am pleased that your visit will also provide an opportunity to deepen the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the established Church of England and the Church of Scotland.”

As pointed out on the Catholic Weekend show this morning, symbolism matters. The fact that this elderly woman in her 80’s continues to hold the fascination of so many people around the world I think has less to do with glamour and glitz, and more with an appreciation that she, too, understands the power of symbolism. She does what her country needs her to do, and while we may think that work is easy, or extraordinarily well-paid, the sacrifices and personal losses she has had to bear as a result of not being able to relax, take it easy, and be just a normal granny like everyone else her age, are things I daresay none of us could reasonably be capable of fathoming.

In the case of the present monarch and her outreach to the Catholic Church, unimaginable to previous generations of Britons, I think she “gets” it. She appreciates that her visits to Rome, and the Pontiff’s visits to her realm; the warmth both sides have shown to each other during those visits in trying to make sure everything goes perfectly; and the interaction that the Queen has made with the Catholic hierarchy in the UK – going so far as to refer to the late Cardinal Hume as “MY cardinal” and attending Vespers at the Catholic cathedral in London – have gone a long way toward normalizing relations between her country and the Catholic Church, after so many years of unhappiness.

I for one will be raising my glass to Her Majesty this evening, to thank her for her efforts to reach out to Catholics in her country: your very good health, Ma’am.

Queen Elizabeth II meeting Blessed Pope John Paul II at The Vatican,
October 17, 1980