Remembering Queen Elizabeth II’s Catholic Connections

The Queen’s commitment to ecumenical goodwill was evident throughout her reign.

A tribute to Queen Elizabeth II stands in the Catholic Cathedral of Westminster on Sept. 19.
A tribute to Queen Elizabeth II stands in the Catholic Cathedral of Westminster on Sept. 19. (photo: Edward Pentin)

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, with its worldwide impact, has had an influence at many levels. In Britain, it has sent strong reminders about how much we value traditions, community life and a sense of neighborliness — and that it is normal and natural to worship God.

People were moved and impressed by the dignity of the funeral liturgy, the sound of so many united voices singing well-loved hymns, the beauty of the English, and the sense of the structure and “flow” of it all. For Catholics, this will all fit very well into the already-strong sense of a renewal of dignity and simplicity in the liturgy generally, for beautiful chant by a choir that relishes glorious music, and for hymns that can be shared by all and speak of eternal truths.

The royal funeral, with its formal-but-unfussy style, showed the Anglican tradition at its best: a tradition that recent popes have praised and have seen as making a real contribution to the wider Christian heritage.

The ecumenical relationships that developed through the Queen’s reign were also very much on display in the funeral service: Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Catholic archbishop of Westminster, read a prayer, and he was seated in the sanctuary along with other clergy.

All of this was, of course, happening at Westminster Abbey, the ancient Benedictine abbey founded by St. Edward the Confessor a few years before the Norman Conquest on the marshy land to the west of the City of London. The monks drained the land and created fields, which they dedicated to various saints and orchards; the names still echo in local street names, such as Abbey Orchard Street, St. Ann’s Street, St. Matthew Street and Great Peter Street.

Not far away is London’s central Catholic cathedral — Westminster Cathedral — which was visited by Queen Elizabeth II to mark its centenary in 1995. At that time, Cardinal Basil Hume was archbishop, and he welcomed her to a special vespers, attended by a packed congregation with representatives of Catholic groups and organizations from across Britain.

The Queen’s commitment to ecumenical goodwill was evident throughout her reign: In 1982, she welcomed Pope St. John Paul II to Buckingham Palace when he made history as the first pope to visit Britain. Then, in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made a state visit to Britain at her personal invitation, flying to Scotland to meet her at Holyrood, Edinburgh’s royal palace named for the ancient abbey that formerly stood on the site. Their meeting, like that with St. John Paul II, was exceptionally warm and friendly. Later, Pope Benedict spoke in Westminster Hall, at the heart of Parliament — the 11th-century hall where so much of British history has been written and where the Queen lay in state. Benedict XVI spoke of Britain’s rich Christian heritage and the way in which the country has emerged “as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.” This is very much the message that the Queen always sought to convey as a constitutional monarch, and it strongly echoes Catholic social teaching.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis sent a special message of greeting to the Queen for her Platinum Jubilee, alluding warmly to the way she had served Britain and  fostered “the advancement of its people, and the preservation of its illustrious spiritual, cultural and political heritage.”

When he was the Prince of Wales, King Charles III attended many ecumenical events, and his friendliness toward the Catholic Church is well-known and was emphasized by his attendance at the canonization of St. John Henry Newman in 2019. Then-Prince Charles described St. John Henry Newman in an op-ed as a “great Briton,” a “great churchman” and “this great saint, who bridges the divisions between traditions.”

Now-King Charles has the prayers of us all as he begins his reign, and we echo again the prayer that has been heard so much and with real enthusiasm over recent days: God save the King!