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Novelty and friendship to mark Her Majesty’s historic visit with Pope Francis on Thursday

UPDATE: The location was changed for Her Majesty’s audience with His Holiness Pope Francis. The Queen and Prince Philip had tea with the Pope in a suite of rooms in the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall, near the Pontiff’s residence at the Casa Santa Marta guest house.

On Thursday, 3 April, just a little over two weeks before her birthday, Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh will be making a long-awaited visit to Rome at the invitation of the President of Italy, President Giorgio Napolitano.


The visit, which was previously scheduled for 6-7 March 2013, was postponed last year when Her Majesty fell ill.  This will be her first overseas trip in over three years.

President Napolitano, a 46-year member of Italy’s Communist Party, is said to be a huge fan of the 87-year-old monarch whom he precedes in age by a mere nine months, making him Europe’s oldest head of state.

Following a private luncheon hosted by the President, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness will make their way to Vatican City for a very special audience with His Holiness Pope Francis.

In a curious mix of convention and novelty, this historic visit with the new Pontiff, the first in 30 years, promises to be a most surprising and significant occasion for both royal watchers and Catholics alike.

Her Majesty’s fifth visit to the Vatican

The visit will mark The Queen’s fifth trip to the Vatican.  Her first visit took place in 1951, while still a princess, during the pontificate of Venerable Pope Pius XII.  A decade later, she was to meet Pope John XXIII in what would be celebrated as the first official visit of a British monarch to a pope in 38 years, following grandparents King George V and Queen Mary’s meeting with Pope Pius XI in 1923.

The next two visits were to Pope John Paul II, whose determination never to revisit the divisions of the past were expressed with much ardor when he said,

“Your Majesty’s visit immediately brings to mind the rich heritage of British Christianity and all that Great Britain has contributed to the building of Christian Europe. Through that long history, relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See have not always been untroubled; long years of common inheritance were followed by the sad years of division.”

“There can be no turning back from the ecumenical goal we have set ourselves in obedience to the Lord’s command.” Both the past and future “demand of us a sense of shared purpose, (…) as it seeks a unity capable of excluding forever the kind of conflicts which have been so much a part of the past.”

Their Holinesses Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II are both set to be canonised by Pope Francis at the end of the month.

A legacy of friendship that spans six papacies

King Edward VII was the first British monarch in centuries to visit a pope.

King Edward VII was the first British monarch in centuries to visit a pope.

Interestingly, it was to be Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandfather King Edward VII’s visit to Pope Leo XIII, in 1903, that would be the first visit to a pope in centuries, setting the stage for a warming of relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See. The planning of his visit did not go as smoothly as today, however.

Not unlike his mother Queen Victoria and his son George V, Edward VII prided himself on not judging a man based on race or religion.  Yet, the Cabinet was of the mind that such a visit would be inappropriate given that he was the leader of a Protestant nation, and the head of a Protestant Church.

It was without the Cabinet’s support that he visited the Pontiff, but only as a private citizen rather than a head of State, given that State visits were reserved for officially recognised States, and the Pope was not yet considered a head of State at the time.

Today, Her Majesty shares the same ethos as Her great-grandfather, and could well be considered the most Catholic-friendly Supreme Governor of the Church of England in modern times.”  She has personally known six popes. She was the first monarch to extend an invitation to a pope, and John Paul II was the first ever pope to visit Her Majesty in England. This friendship continued with Pope Benedict XVI whom she hosted in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2010.

Less than a year ago, she signed legislation repealing the archaic 300-year-old law that prevented heirs married to Catholics from acceding to the throne.

Upon His Holiness Pope Francis’s inauguration a year ago, Her Majesty was represented by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and sent the following message:

“Your Holiness, I send you my congratulations on your inauguration. My Government and I look forward to maintaining the already close co-operation and excellent relations between the UK and the Holy See. I also look forward to the further strengthening of the relationship between the global Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. Prince Philip and I send you our warm good wishes for your Pontificate.

Elizabeth R.”

And only three months ago did the Holy Father make Britain’s most senior Catholic, the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, one of his first new cardinals.

Tea with the Pope

In his customary way of dispensing with protocol, Pope Francis will not be hosting Her Majesty and The Duke of Edinburgh in the formal setting of the Library, beneath the papal apartments at the Apostolic Palace, where official audiences are usually held.  The new Pontiff will instead greet them in a more intimate setting…

Pope Francis receives  Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina, in his suite at Domus Sanctae Martae where he will also have tea with Her Majesty and Prince Philip.

Pope Francis receives Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, president of Argentina, in his suite at Domus Sanctae Martae where he will also have tea with Her Majesty and Prince Philip.

True to his humble ways, the Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church will be offering the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and her husband tea, yes, in his modest three-room apartment at Domus Sanctae Martae, the five-story hostel in whose kitchens he can often be seen cooking his own pasta before joining the other residents in the common dining room.

Black formal attire not required

In yet another modern twist, the BBC’s royal correspondent Peter Hunt says that Her Majesty will neither be wearing black nor a veil as she has during previous visits to the Vatican.

If British protocol dictates that royal women not wear black unless they are in mourning, The Queen wore black in the past because she came not as a head of State but as a private individual.

During her visit with Pope John XXIII and subsequent visit to John Paul II, The Queen wore black full length evening gowns, a cascading black veil held in place by a diamond tiara and pearls. On her second visit with Pope John Paul II, she wore a black suit, a black pillbox hat and veil, and her trademark pearls, thus eschewing British protocol for Vatican tradition.

At the time, Vatican convention for wives and female heads of State used to require a black evening gown covering shoulders and knees, a black veil, no gloves, simple jewelry, closed shoes, and no white with the exception of Catholic royals.  This is no longer the case.  These days, as long as it is modest and respectful, covering shoulders and knees, anything goes.

Will Her Majesty choose to wear a vibrant-coloured power suit with a tall, feathered hat tomorrow perhaps?

The contentious issue of the Malvinas:

A final point of interest for Thursday’s royal visit involves a more delicate and, dare we say, contentious political issue that the Argentine Press has been only too keen to highlight of late:  Today, 2 april, marks the anniversary of the Argentine military invasion of the Falklands which triggered a 74-day conflict with England.  Surely a topic they would rather avoid, will the British monarch and the Argentine-born pontiff address the elephant in the room?

A Common Goal 

While Her Majesty has been delegating many of her duties to other royals of late, it is somewhat interesting to note which travels she has chosen to take on herself. For a devout woman of faith, this informal visit to meet with Pope Francis demonstrates well where her priorities lie.

As both the Anglican and Catholic Churches begin a new spring with newly appointed leaders, building enduring and fruitful relations between the two Churches will continue to be a most worthy mutual endeavour.

Stay tuned tomorrow for complete coverage of the royal visit.

photo credit: lizsmith via photopin cc, Robert Prummel at nl.wikipedia (Transferred from nl.wikipedia) [{{PD -old}}CC-PD-Mark,retouched] and via Wikimedia Commons cc

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