Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth II: Shared Christian Heritage

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A focus on the shared roots of Christian faith was a theme which emerged from the meeting Pope Francis had with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip on Thursday afternoon, 3 April 2014. Also attending the private encounter in a small study beside the Paul VI hall was Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, former archbishop of Westminster and the first Catholic bishop to preach for the Royal Family since the Church of England broke from Rome in the 16th century.

Vatican Radio’s Philippa Hitchen was following the encounter…..

It was a far cry from the first time Princess Elizabeth met with a Pope, Pius XII, in 1951, the year before she became queen. On that occasion, and her meeting a few years later with Pope John XXIII, she was dressed in full length black with a long veil. Even her more recent meetings with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XII have been quite formal affairs, but on this occasion, Buckingham Palace had requested a relaxed, informal encounter to follow on from her luncheon with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. It seems it was such a good lunch that the royal couple arrived almost a quarter of an hour late in the Vatican and as she shook hands with the Pope Francis, the Queen apologized for keeping him waiting. Together with the Duke of Edinburgh, and accompanied by the Cardinal and papal translator, the two leaders spent almost 20 minutes in private conversation before posing for photographs and exchanging some rather unusual gifts.

The Queen had brought a large hamper stuffed with goodies from her royal estates: honey from the gardens of Buckingham Palace, venison, beef and some best bitter from Windsor Castle, cider, apple juice and a selection of chutneys from Sandringham and some shortbread and whiskey from the Balmoral estate in Scotland. She also gave the Pope a couple of signed photographs in silver frames, saying with a wry smile, “I’m afraid you have to have a photograph – it’s inevitable!”

Pope Francis also had a rather personal gift for the Queen – or rather for her newest great-grandson and third in line for the throne, the eight-month-old Prince George. It was a blue, lapis lazuli orb, topped with a cross of St Edward the Confessor and around the base a dedication reading ‘Pope Francis to His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’. The Queen seemed visibly delighted, exclaiming, “that’s very nice, he’ll be thrilled with that…when he’s a little older.”The Pope also presented the Queen with a replica of a decree from the Vatican archives, dating from 1679, by which Pope Innocent XI extended the veneration of St Edward the Confessor to the Universal Church, establishing his feast day on 9 October.

Those who followed Pope Benedict’s state visit to Britain in 2010 will recall one of the most moving moments of his three day trip was in Westminster Abbey where he and the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams knelt side by side in prayer at the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066. Together the Anglican and Catholic leaders prayed for Church and country but also for the gift of reconciliation and unity.

We weren’t told exactly what the Bishop of Rome and the Governor of the Church of England talked about during this brief visit to the Vatican, but I’m fairly sure their talks will have touched on the shared spiritual heritage and a mutual commitment to renewed Christian unity.