100 Years of Catholicism in the Heart of London

A visit to Westminster Cathedral in honor of the Pope’s trip to the U.K.

Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass at Westminster Cathedral Sept. 18 during his state visit to Great Britain, when he will beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sept. 19.

A few years ago as I lectured and toured Europe, I found myself in London. I was there to explore Catholic England — that last vestige of the faith that was nearly snuffed out 500 years ago. Catholicism persisted in England despite the persecutions by going underground until 1832, when the Catholic Emancipation Act was put into effect.

I walked down Victoria Street, my guidebook in hand, and saw it: Westminster Cathedral, an extraordinarily stunning building with an imposing 273-foot tall striped Italianate campanile. Most British cathedrals are Gothic, but Westminster is clearly Byzantine, reminiscent of Eastern Europe.

Westminster Cathedral, more properly called the Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, is the largest Catholic edifice in England and Wales and easily the busiest church in Britain, as 8,000 people pass through its doors every week and seven Masses are celebrated daily.

Papal Promises

When King Edward the Confessor was in exile in Normandy after having been driven from England by invading Danes, he made a solemn vow that if he should return safely to his throne he would make a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When he was subsequently returned and crowned in 1042, pressing matters of state didn’t allow him to take a lengthy journey to Rome. The Pope released the king from his vow on the condition that he build a monastery dedicated to St. Peter. So Edward built Westminster Abbey. Yes, abbey. Westminster Abbey is now an Anglican church. After the Reformation, the Anglican Church took control of the abbey, shutting out Catholics. In 1884, when the hierarchy was re-established, a small part of this site was reacquired by the Catholic Church, which is why Westminster Cathedral is located about 400 yards from Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Cathedral is John Francis Bentley’s masterwork. Bentley, like many Britons of means of his era, embarked on a four-month grand tour of Europe to inspire himself for the task at hand. He visited the most famous churches in Christendom, including Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, Ravenna’s San Vitale and Venice’s St Mark’s. When in Rome, he was received by Pope Leo XIII. The Pope gave him his blessing and the injunction to design a worthy cathedral in the heart of London.

The cathedral was finished in 1903, but canon law then in force dictated that the consecration had to wait until the debt was repaid. This June marked the centenary of the cathedral’s consecration. A “Treasure of the Cathedral” exhibit, part of the celebration, included a 13th-century ceremonial cross, a chalice belonging to the recusant era, a silk fragment from the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, and relics. During a Mass to celebrate the consecration anniversary, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said, “The history of this great cathedral, Westminster Cathedral, indicates the expectations and the hope of restored Catholic and Christian community of this land.”

The church is an impressive building both inside and out. It seems clear that Bentley wanted to make sure that the English understood what they’d been missing for the previous 300 years. The visitor’s gaze is naturally lifted upwards to find one of the cathedral’s most stunning features: The ceiling is festooned with thousand of gold stars.

Famous Visitors

In 1977, as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the cathedral for a flower show. It was a historic visit: She was the first reigning British monarch to visit a Catholic church in Britain since the Reformation. In 1995, at the invitation of Cardinal Basil Hume, the queen attended Mass at the cathedral, which was another first for a reigning British monarch since the Reformation.

Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in the cathedral during his apostolic visit on May 28, 1982.

Cathedral’s Chapels

I consulted my tourist map to find the Chapel of Sts. Gregory and Augustine of Canterbury, the saints who first brought the Gospel to England. Written in Latin in a panel of one of the chapel arches are the famous words uttered by Pope Gregory the Great when he first saw blond, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxons in Rome. Upon being told where they were from, he is reported to have said, “Not Angles, but angels, if they were but Christians.” Augustine, his emissary to Britain, ultimately became the first archbishop of Canterbury.

Of all of the beautiful spots in the cathedral, the most comforting and inviting is Our Lady’s Chapel. The apse above the altar in the chapel contains a stunningly beautiful gold mosaic of the Virgin Mother and St. Peter, the patron of Westminster. Between them is Christ resting above a cross that has been transformed into the Tree of Life. Behind Mary is the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, the sites of much martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is on the opposite side of the sanctuary from Our Lady’s Chapel. Three hanging oil lamps illuminate the chapel, producing a profound intimacy and feeling of sanctity. The chapel contains two striking mosaics: one of a phoenix and the other of a peacock. The phoenix has been associated with Christianity since St. Clement of Rome first used it in reference to Christ’s resurrection. The peacock is a Christian symbol of immortality. The bird’s tail contains hundreds of “eyes” which represent God’s omniscience.

Spiritual Refuge in the City

Westminster Cathedral is a spiritual refuge amid London’s hectic streets and busy city life. The cathedral is a magnificent sacred space in the heart of a city that is steeped in history that has profoundly impacted the Church both for good and for bad.

In October 2009, the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, knelt side-by-side in prayer at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor in nearby Westminster Abbey. It was a poignant and striking moment of ecumenism and Christian fraternity between Catholics and Anglicans. Let us hope that Pope Benedict’s visit and his offer to welcome in disaffected members of the Anglican Communion will help bring an end to the schism that has torn the faith apart in England.

Angelo Stagnaro writes from

New York City.

Westminster Cathedral

Clergy House

42 Francis St.

London, England


Papal Visit

For the Holy Father’s travel itinerary, visit ThePapalVisit.org.uk.