This is the 1st of a series of Homilies in preparation for the Pope’s visit to Britain this September. I am using, as a basis, the questions posed by our Bishops in their free booklet “Heart speaks unto heart”. This week the Questions is, “Why is the Pope meeting the Queen?”
The obvious answer is that the Queen and our Government invited him, and this is part of an ongoing reconciliation between our country and the Catholic Church of which the Pope is the Head. It’s now almost 500 years since Henry VIII destroyed the Catholic Church in England. This meant that for many years anyone who was a Catholic might be arrested or fined, and Catholic priests if caught were usually executed. This fierce persecution gradually petered out in the 18thC but there were anti-Catholic riots in London in the 19thC and it was only in 1910 that George V made a point of changing his Coronation Oath so that it was no longer explicitly anti-Catholic.
He was aware, as is the Queen, how many British people, and the people of the Commonwealth, are Catholics, and her desire has always been to serve all of her people. This has included two visits that she has made to the Vatican, and an informal courtesy call by Pope John Paul II when he visited here in 1982. And now, for the first time ever, we have a formal State Visit as well as the Pastoral Visit to us his Catholic flock.
There is however another reason why this is a State Visit, for as the Bishops say, “co-operation with the Holy See (that’s another word for the Pope and the Vatican) has become an increasingly strong feature of British foreign policy.. From climate change to African economic development, from education and the promotion of health care to the relief of unfair international debt, the British Government and the Holy See have made common cause. They see each other as influential allies.”
This might surprise you, and the reason is that in Britain we only tend to hear what the Pope and the Vatican are saying, if the Newspapers don’t like what has been said, and the Radio & TV News is much the same. This means that even we Catholics can get a warped view of what our Holy Father is actually saying to the world. It’s one of the reasons why I read the English language version of the Vatican newspaper “L’Osservatore Romano” as it reports all the talks and statements and actions that the Vatican takes in the course of each week.
What will he be saying today? Well I can tell you. He will be preaching on the bible texts that we have just heard. Our Gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is just the kind of story that the Queen sometimes uses in her Christmas Message. In 2007, she said “Jesus of Nazareth reached out and made friends with people whom others ignored or despised. It was in this way that he proclaimed his belief that, in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in one human family.” Now this is the kind of message our Holy Father is preaching week by week, often relating it to some urgent need or tragedy in the world that our news people hardly mention. But he knows, because reports will always be coming in to him from wherever there are Catholics, and that is almost everywhere!
Again and again, as our Bishops say, Pope Benedict will draw from a tradition known as Catholic Social Teaching. This is based on just the kind of Gospel story that we’ve just heard, and notice our 1st Reading (Deut 30:10-14) too chiming in, “The Law is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach… No, it is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance.” This is the kind of thing that week by week the Pope is teaching, just like all our Bishops and Priests are, and despite ignorant young Civil Servants in the Foreign Office who made jokes about the Pope’s visit, our Government at its highest level knows that the implications of this kind of teaching for our world are very significant.
They are less interested, of course, in the other thing he tends to teach, and what’s that? No, not what you think. The other thing he speaks of in his Audiences on Wednesdays is about some of the great Saints or Teachers of the Church, sharing with those who are there, and others who read what he’s written, some of the great store of wisdom.. on life, on prayer, and on God.. that is part of the heritage of our Church. The Pope then is not just the head of us 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, and that’s something in itself, but also the heir of a legacy that goes back even further than our monarchy, right back to St Peter himself. In a sense, the Queen and the Pope have much more in common than we might realise, and that is why his visit is a State Visit that we should be proud to be part of.
But, aware of the Gospel today, we must make sure that we do all we can to set an example of love and faith to all those around us, even those that other people dislike or despise. Because in that way, gradually, the truths of the Catholic Church will get through to the people we live and work with. And that, after all, is what Jesus wants.