On Dec. 2, 1960, the Swiss Guards looked up to see an Anglican archbishop clad in a purple cassock and Canterbury cap striding up the steps to the Vatican’s apostolic palace. It was the first time an archbishop of Canterbury had visited the Vatican for 600 years.

A former school headmaster, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher had been the head of the Worldwide Anglican Communion since 1945. On the election of Pope John XXIII in 1958, a new spirit of ecumenism was in the air. After Pope John established a new Secretariat for the Promotion of Christian Unity in June of that year, the rambunctious Archbishop Fisher decided to call on the pope. His unexpected visit set the Vatican diplomatic machine into a tizzy, but Pope John XXIII welcomed him, and together they broke centuries of deadlock between the two Churches.

Ever since King Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the tension between Catholics and Anglicans had grown into a bitter, centuries-long feud. Nevertheless, by the 18th and 19th centuries, the relationship began to thaw.

In the 18th century, a remarkable correspondence developed between Archbishop of Canterbury William Wake and French Catholic bishops, and in the 19th century, Blessed John Henry Newman’s conversion brought scores of Anglicans into the Catholic Church, rekindling the dream of unity. Hoping for a positive response, an Anglican layman, Lord Halifax, pressured for Rome to decide on the validity of Anglican orders. The hope was dashed in 1896, when Pope Leo XIII issued his "motu proprio" Apostolicae Curae (On the Nullity of Anglican Orders), declaring Anglican orders to be "utterly null and void."

Undaunted by Leo XIII’s negative appraisal, the elderly Lord Halifax went to Malines, Belgium, between 1922 and 1926 to talk with Catholics about reunion. Both Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson and Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI were informed of these "Malines Conversations" and encouraged them. The dialogue progressed to the point where proposals were drafted for a formal council to consider reunion between Anglicanism and Catholicism.

At that point, however, Archbishop Davidson got cold feet. English Catholics also were disturbed. Anglicans, they felt, always found it easier to talk to French and Belgian Catholics than to Catholics in their own country. Memories of mutual persecution were too long. The promise offered at Malines collapsed in 1925, after briefly stirring the centuries-old hope for reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury.

During the ’30s and ’40s, economic problems and the Second World War presented far more pressing concerns for all of Europe, but in the latter years of Pius XII’s reign, movement towards unity started again. Liturgical experts and bishops on both sides began to talk with one another. They instituted the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and, in 1955, Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester visited Archbishop Giovanni Montini of Milan.

In 1956, Archbishop Montini, later to be elected Pope Paul VI, received a delegation of four Anglican priests and a layman who stayed with him for 10 days.

Thus, the stage was set for Archbishop Fisher’s historic 1960 visit. Archbishop Fisher, with his senior chaplain, Frederick Temple, and John Satterwaite, secretary of the newly formed Church of England Council of Foreign Relations, had left England at the end of November on a historic journey to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, the archbishop visited the Anglican cathedral and the holy sites; then he continued on to Constantinople to meet the Orthodox patriarch. Archbishop Fisher had informed the Vatican that, on the way back from the Middle East, he planned to call on the pope himself.

John XXIII’s secretary of state, Cardinal Domenico Tardini, was unhappy with the proposed visit. He blacked out the media and tried to portray the archbishop’s historic visit as a private call. When Archbishop Fisher landed in Rome, he defied the ban on publicity, announcing that he was indeed visiting as the archbishop of Canterbury. The next day, he gave a speech about the two Churches, and, although he wanted to issue a joint statement, Cardinal Tardini refused. Archbishop Fisher went ahead and wrote an Anglican statement instead.

So far, the Anglicans had done all the running. By 10:30am on Dec. 2, Sir William Scarlett, Queen Elizabeth II’s diplomatic representative, still hadn’t won cooperation from the Vatican, and Archbishop Fisher threatened to leave without seeing the pope.

Despite the problems, the redoubtable Archbishop Fisher set out for the Vatican that morning. Only then did he and his party realize that they were being given special honors. The Swiss Guard was arrayed in full dress uniform, the red carpets were out, and he was received ceremoniously by the Chamberlain of Sword and Cape.

Archbishop Fisher was alone with Pope John for more than an hour. They spoke of the relations of all the churches. The pope grouped the Anglicans with other Protestants, and the archbishop suggested there was a difference. Pope John accepted special status for Anglicanism and said how delighted he was, as successor of Gregory the Great, to be meeting with the successor of Augustine of Canterbury.

During the meeting, Pope John made some observations on the Gospel. In his meditations, he thought of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. At the end, the gentle pope asked the archbishop when the Anglicans would come back, and Archbishop Fisher made his now-famous reply — that it was impossible to go back; instead, "we must go forward together."

Secretary of State Cardinal Tardini still had his impact. There were no photographs to record the historic occasion, and the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, gave the visit one condescending line: "Dr. Geoffrey Fisher had an audience with His Holiness."

However, Pope John had insisted that Archbishop Fisher should meet with Cardinal Augustin Bea — the new head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity. This meant an official channel of communication now existed, and Anglicans would eventually be invited as observers to the Second Vatican Council.

In 1963, John XXIII summed up the mood in the Church in his "moto proprio" Superno De Nutu: "A new hope arises that those who rejoice in the name of Christians, but are nevertheless separated from this apostolic see, hearing the voice of the Divine Shepherd, may be able to make their way into the one Church of Christ … to seek and to follow that unity which Jesus Christ implored from his Heavenly Father with such fervent prayers."

For his part, Archbishop Fisher had been brought up to dislike and distrust anything Catholic. What changed his attitude? He recalled, "Without any doubt, the personality of Pope John. It was quite obvious to the world that Pope John was a different sort of pope, whom I should like to meet and could meet on the grounds of Christian brotherhood without any kind of ecclesiastical compromise on either side."

We can see how the course of history is altered by the Holy Spirit moving in and through unique and powerful personalities.

Centuries of bitter feuding, suspicion and hatred began to be forgiven by a lively and optimistic archbishop meeting with a down-to-earth, congenial and warm-hearted pope — a pope who understood that he was the shepherd of the one flock and who was willing to take a risk to welcome some lost sheep home.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican priest. His latest book is

The Romance of Religion. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at DwightLongenecker.com.