Pope Francis continues to win hearts all over the world with his simple enthusiasm for people and life in general. It was fitting, then, that when the Queen came to visit him at the Vatican, it was a quiet, dignified affair, much in line with the two world leaders’ personalities. Nevertheless, the visit, while informal, has the potential to be the basis for a long, fruitful relationship between the two. Pope Francis’ meeting of the Queen was characterized by his customary charm and his propensity for symbolic gesture.
The history between England and the Vatican is a long one, fraught with controversy. Roman Catholics are taught that the Anglican church was created by Henry VIII in order to obtain an easy divorce from the Catholic Queen Catherine of Aragon, whose brother was a supporter of the Pope. That split created a rent in Christendom that has yet to be and most likely will never be healed. The difference in the interpretation of history is too great.
But the important part of that history is that the subsequent split between Rome and England in the 16th century is that the monarch of England was also made the head of the English church. Thus, the meeting between the Queen and Pope Francis was not just a political meeting, but a meeting of religious leaders as well. In fact, the British monarch is known for the firmness of her Christian faith, which, though she is not overly effusive about it, she does display on appropriate occasions. For instance, her Christmas broadcasts, a yearly tradition, are known for containing some bit of Christian message directly from her majesty.
While the Queen undoubtedly has her own religious beliefs, the Pope has a religious agenda as well in this meeting with the Anglican ruler. The Catholic church is notoriously set against the Church of England, which they see as schismatic. While Pope Francis is obligated to adhere to the Church’s doctrinal principles, he chooses to emphasize the commonalities between people rather than the differences, a feature he took up with the symbolic gesture of a gift to the Queen.
The gifts he gave to the Queen included a present for her great-grandson, George, as well as one for the adults. The gift was a stone orb topped with the cross of King Edward the Confessor. For the adults, the Pope included a decree made by Pope Innocent XI from 1679 regarding Edward the Confessor and making him the object of universal reverence for the entire Catholic church.
Without a little bit of historical knowledge, the symbolism of these gifts could very well be lost. After the split between England and Rome, there was very little good will between the two. Edward the Confessor, however, was a saintly king and both the first English monarch and Anglo-Saxon to be made a saint. He was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1161. He is perhaps most famous for causing an abbey to be built on the present site of Westminster Abbey and religiously, for his extreme piety. The decree by Pope Innocent XI was the decree that made him officially recognized by all Catholics and not just the object of particular devotion for English Catholics.
In Edward the Confessor, Pope Francis has found his perfect symbol of Christian unity. By recognizing him to the current head of the Church of England, he affirmed the common ground that both denominations share. There was no contention between the two in this meeting, rather a polite meeting over tea, which belies the religious tension that exist for many Catholics and Anglicans. Not only was the gift of the papal decree a symbol to the Queen and Anglicans, it was a symbol to the rest of the Catholic world to see what they have in common.
This is well in keeping with Francis’ mission of unity, which also saw progress when his predecessor, Pope Benedict, visited England in 2010. At that time, the then pope knelt side by side with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the shrine of Edward the Confessor. Together they shared the most unitive factor of all Christian religion – prayer. In the present, the royal saint seems to be a theme for Pope Francis when it comes to England, a symbol he is taking as representative of his relationship to England – a man both Catholic and English, uniting the best traits of both.
In this meeting with the head of the Church of England, Pope Francis maintained his overarching policy of reconciliation and finding common ground. Unlike many Catholics who are vehemently opposed to the Church of England, he accepted the temporal symbol of its power with open arms and a fair amount of guileless charm. His nickname for the infant Prince George – el ninetto – was heartwarming and characteristic of a man whose love of children has been on display time and again in the media. The man exudes openness and love, but he is still a very shrewd mind. While this meeting with the Queen was certainly informal by all standards, Pope Francis did not pass up the opportunity to make a symbolic gesture of commonality, one that will be looked to as an indication of future relations.
Opinion By Lydia Webb