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British royalty at Newman canonization
In a few days, Cardinal John Henry Newman will be canonized as a saint, and Britain’s Prince Charles is scheduled to attend. The prince’s presence has been reported as if it will be a major shift in relations between the United Kingdom and its Royal Family and the Roman Catholic Church, quite novel and astonishing.
As far as Prince Charles, the eldest son and heir of Queen Elizabeth II, is concerned, a visit to the Vatican will be nothing new. The prince attended the funeral of Pope St. John Paul II in 2005. His presence at the funeral was big news, not only because he came as the representative of Great Britain, but also because he postponed his wedding for a day to make the trip.
The prince has been in Rome on more than a few occasions over the years and has met three popes in succession. His mother, the queen, has met every pope since St. John XXIII, except Pope John Paul I.
Without doubt, hostility and coolness marked the relations between the British monarchy and the Catholic Church for many decades after King Henry VIII separated English Catholicism from the papacy almost 500 years ago, but connections between British royalty and the Catholic Church have been occurring for more than a century.
King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s son, who reigned from 1901-10, broke the ice, genuinely seeming to admire the Catholic Church. Two of Victoria’s granddaughters converted to Catholicism. One of them was Spain’s late Queen Victoria Eugenie, the great-grandmother and godmother of today’s King Felipe VI.
In 1923, Pope Pius XI conferred on Victoria Eugenie the highest recognition the Church gives a Catholic laywoman for devotion to the faith. (She died, as a practicing Catholic, in 1969.)
More recently, Elizabeth II’s first cousin, Prince Michael, was married to a Catholic, Austrian Countess Marie Christine von Reibnitz. She is a princess of the United Kingdom.
Michael’s elder brother, Edward, Duke of Kent, was married in 1961 to an English noblewoman, an Anglican, Katherine Worsley. In 1994, Katherine converted to the Catholic Church, with the queen’s approval.
Queen Elizabeth II, while a practicing Anglican, is said to be a very committed Christian, acutely aware of the fact that religion very much is losing ground in the modern Western culture. Supposedly, and evidently, she regards figures such as the pope, British cardinals, and St. Teresa of Calcutta not as adversaries but as exponents of a reality more and more needed in the world, namely belief in the God of Jesus and Christian discipleship.
Throughout her reign of 67 years, Elizabeth II has been most congenial with Catholic leaders and with Catholics. She attended the great centennial celebration in 2003 of London’s Roman Catholic cathedral. The chair, which she occupied at the event, is prominently displayed at the cathedral to this day.
She has been friendly with successive archbishops of Westminster, the traditional heads of the Catholic hierarchy in Britain. In 1999, learning that he was dying of cancer, the queen, on her own initiative, admitted the then-archbishop, Cardinal Basil Hume, OSB, to the Order of Merit, the highest award for service and honor given in Britain. In 1983, Elizabeth II, also on her own, gave this award to Mother Teresa.
Important to note is that the British Royal Family is just as much the Canadian Royal Family, the Australian Royal Family, and the Jamaican Royal Family, since Elizabeth II is the constitutional head of state of 15, completely independent nations, several of which have large groups of Catholics within their populations, with Catholic leaders such as prime ministers.
Of course, Catholics in these 15 nations expect their queen to respect their Church and prominent members of their Church.
So, Prince Charles, not at all surprisingly, will attend Cardinal Newman’s canonization, to honor Cardinal Newman himself, the Catholic Church, Christianity, Pope Francis and his mother’s millions of Catholic subjects.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.