If any year can be said to have made a difference to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the Holy See, it is 1982. Today Catholics recall it as the year when a pope first set foot on Britain’s soil, but reaching that point took hundreds of years. And there was a stumbling block along the way – it was the visit that nearly didn’t happen.
Relations with Rome had been severed, of course, with the Reformation when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. It was not until 1914 that the UK established a presence in Rome again, when the Foreign Office realised at the outbreak of war that a resident envoy to the Holy See might be useful in counteracting the influence of the German and Austrian ambassadors on the papacy.
In 1929, the Vatican was constituted as a state by the Lateran Pacts but it was another nine years before an apostolic delegate was allowed to be appointed in London. By the 1970s the relationship between Britain and the Holy See deepened, partly due to a common opposition to communism during the Cold War.
Although the papal visit in 1982 was a pastoral one arranged by the Catholic Churches in England and Wales and in Scotland, rather than a state visit, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was well disposed towards it, and in October 1981 the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, had urged the Cabinet to accept full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
“The historical British conflicts with the papacy have lost most of their legal and political significance,” he told fellow ministers, and he clearly thought the impending visit would draw attention to the way in which Britain was lagging behind her allies. Most European nations as well as Australia and Canada had full diplomatic relations with the Holy See, while at that stage the US sent a personal envoy.
The figure of John Paul II loomed large over this argument about relations; Carrington pointed out to colleagues that the pope had influence in places where key British interests were at stake, including Ireland, eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Ireland was particularly important and the Vatican had consistently condemned violence in Northern Ireland. And yet in recent months there had been marked tension over the Maze Prison hunger strike, with testy letters being exchanged between Margaret Thatcher and the pope. John Paul II had even sent his own emissary to Northern Ireland to visit the hunger striker Bobby Sands. Looking back, it is extraordinary that within a fortnight of the Maze strike ending, the Cabinet turned its attention to improving relations with the Holy See.
Yet there were objections from Protestants regarding the visit, not least from Ian Paisley. Mrs Thatcher put him straight in a letter, pointing out that it “would be natural for the Queen to meet the Pope if she is in the country at the time of his visit. It would also be natural for me to do so.”
Natural it might have been, but Mrs Thatcher’s planned welcome would be thwarted by General Galtieri. In April 1982 the Argentine president ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands. There was anxiety in the Vatican about a papal visit to the UK indicating favouritism towards a country at war with Catholic Argentina, and the visit was nearly called off.
Deft footwork by Cardinal Basil Hume and the then Archbishop Thomas Winning of Glasgow during a rescue mission to Rome, including a suggestion that the visit to the UK should be followed by a papal visit to Argentina, ensured that John Paul would indeed visit Britain in 1982.
Although in the end the visit was severely curtailed and there was no meeting with the prime minister or her ministers – and only a brief one with the Queen – it was nevertheless a triumph. Crowds turned out in force, there was little protest and it certainly helped ecumenical relations with the Church of England. A highlight was the service in Canterbury Cathedral at which the pope and the archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, knelt in prayer at the place were St Thomas Becket was murdered.
Above all, the 1982 visit opened the government’s eyes to Rome and its diplomatic influence and network. Even the rumpus over the Falklands War, and the possibility of the pope’s visit being cancelled in the wake of it, highlighted that in the Catholic world at least, the pope was a world leader who mattered and a figure that Britain should engage with. The government saw how useful it would be to hear from this institution with its global network.
The Holy See also came to regard the UK rather differently. Since the 1982 visit, Britain’s standing in Rome has risen. Given that the UK is the base of the worldwide Anglican Communion, it has strong connections with both the United States and the rest of Europe, it nurtures the Commonwealth network, it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is a member of Nato, the Vatican’s interest is understandable.
Just how much attitudes changed was evident during the visit of Benedict XVI in 2010. In 1982, a suggestion from peers that John Paul II might give an address in Westminster Hall was turned down, with the Duke of Norfolk, the premier lay Catholic, urging caution. Mrs Thatcher’s advisers were also against it, suggesting that it might be seen as a sign of the pope’s religious supremacy and would be found unacceptable by other denominations.
There was no such nervousness in 2010 when Benedict XVI gave an outstanding address in that same hall to the government and the nation on the relationship between religion and reason, church and state. That Benedict made it, and was so warmly welcomed in doing so, owed much to 1982. For the greatest consequence of John Paul’s visit was that it was a moment of recognition: the United Kingdom and the Holy See turned to one another, and put history behind them. That relationship continues today.
Catherine Pepinster’s book The Keys and the Kingdom – the British and the Papacy will be published in the autumn by Bloomsbury/T&T Clark
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