The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, as representatives of the Queen of England, were among the many delegates in attendance at the canonizations of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II, two important figures in the history of diplomatic relations between Britain and the Holy See.
John XXIII, in particular, opened the door to ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion by convening the Second Vatican Council, as well as being the first Pope in history to meet with an archbishop of Canterbury, having met Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in 1960. In his turn, in 1982, John Paul II became the first Pope to ever visit the United Kingdom.
Joining the British delegation for Sunday’s canonization was Her Majesty’s ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker. One week on from that historic event, he spoke with ZENIT about what this event meant for the relations between the Catholic Church and the United Kingdom:
ZENIT: As Her Majesty’s ambassador to the Holy See, what were your overall impressions of Sunday’s canonizations?
Baker: It was an extraordinary event. First of all, the fact that although by its very nature, it is a Catholic Church event – canonization is internal to the Church – it was such an international event. There were over 90 international delegations from international organizations and countries, including the official British delegation. Pilgrims from around the world. There were certainly more Polish flags than any other in the crowd. There were all sorts of flags and voices you could hear from different countries. And, an event that generated massive interest globally. It was a big media event as well. Again, you had representatives in terms of the media and governments, and also countries that don’t have a particularly strong Catholic or even Christian tradition. There was a representative from Bahrain, the Turkish government sent a delegation, looking back to the time when Archbishop Roncalli was Nunzio in Turkey.[It was] an event internal to the Church, but with enormous ramifications globally. These were two men who are Church and world leaders, and played a really important part in world affairs in the second half of the 20thcentury and the beginning of the 21st.
ZENIT: How would you say these canonizations were significant for the relations between the Holy See and the UK? Here you had Saint John XXIII who opened the Second Vatican Council, which opened the door to ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. Then you had John Paul II who paid his historic visit to the UK in the early 1980s.
Baker: This was very much the line that I took: I gave a small dinner for the British delegation and for members in particular of British clergy who were here for the event. And I think it was important that there was a British representation here at the Canonization. As you say, John XXIII had a short pontificate, but through the opening of the Vatican Council, played an important role in the renewal of the Church which a great impact for British Catholics, but also on those ecumenical relations. The relationship between the global Anglican Communion and Roman Catholicism around the world has transformed since the Vatican Council. Pope John XXIII was the first Pope ever to receive an archbishop of Canterbury. He was keen on development of relations with the United Kingdom during his short pontificate. In fact, there’s a story that one of my predecessors in fact died here in Rome during his posting, and the Pope visited him privately in hospital. It was an extraordinary human gesture during his last illness, but also a gesture towards the United Kingdom.
Then as you say, Pope John Paul II, the extraordinary global role he played as one of the key players in the end of the Cold War, in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Somebody who had an important relationship with Margaret Thatcher who also played a key role in that. And, most importantly of all in terms of bilateral relations, the first ever visit of a Pope to the United Kingdom. It was a pastoral visit. The State visit of Benedict XVI in 2010 could not have happened without that first visit of John Paul II, a visit that encompassed England, Wales, and Scotland.
Two years ago I hosted here in Rome a colloquium on the importance and significance of that visit. We senior people from the Church, ecumenical speakers, people talking about the diplomatic relationship. And the clear consensus was that it was a powerful visit, not only between bilateral relations between Britain and the Holy See, but also the relationship of Catholics in Britain to their own country.
These were two popes who played an important role in British history as well as world history. We were delighted to have had a delegation here to recognize that at the time of their canonization.
ZENIT: One unique aspect of this particular event was the presence of two Pope: Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. How have these two Popes contributed to the relations between Britain and the Holy See?
Baker: Both Popes have met the queen. Again, Benedict’s visit was very important for bilateral relations. It’s fair to say it was one of the most significant visits of his pontificate. During his pontificate bilateral relations reached a level that arguably we have never had since going back to the 16th century.
Pope Francis’ pontificate has been hugely welcomed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike across the United Kingdom, by the Prime Minister, the visit of the Queen where clearly Her Majesty and His Holiness struck an accord during their conversation. I think it was an important further milestone.
ZENIT: Could you speak about the specific role of the British representatives themselves, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester.
Baker: Interestingly this is the fourth visit they have made to Rome, to the Holy See in three years. Their Royal Highnesses represented the Queen at the Beatification of John Paul II in 2011. They returned in 2012 for the 650 anniversary of the Venerable English College, and they also visited the Scots College, and the Beta College at the same time – the first members of the Royal Family to visit those two colleges.
They were here for the inauguration of Pope Francis. And, on this visit, not only do they represent the Queen at the canonization, but they also visited the Pontifical Irish College which trains priests from across the island of Ireland – so both from the Republic of Ireland and from Northern Ireland – again the first time a member of the Royal family has visited the college, where they were very warmly received.
It’s within the context of royal visits of this sort, including of course Her Majesty’s own visits, that relationships between Britain and the Holy See are flourished.