The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were in Rome on 30 November and 1 December. They were here to celebrate the work, teaching and history of the British Pontifical Colleges.
They visited the Pontifical Scots College on St Andrew’s Day, where they unveiled a plaque commemorating Henry Stuart, Cardinal York; commemorated the English Martyrs and 650 years of the foundation of the Venerable English College on the Feast Day of St Ralph Sherwin, the College’s Protomartyr; and were the first ever Royal visitors to the Pontifical Beda College that same day.
The Duke, first cousin of The Queen, delivered a special message from Her Majesty to the English College, and received a blessing at Mass in the College Church of St Thomas of Canterbury from Archbishop Nichols of Westminster.
Why was this such an important visit?
Well, there are clues in an article published by L’Osservatore Romano on 1 December, written by Mons. Mark Langham of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and Justin Bedford of this embassy, about the English Catholic tradition. The history of the relationship between Crown and Papacy, the United Kingdom and Holy See, is long and complex. The presence of Their Royal Highnesses in Rome, and what they did, shows just how far that relationship has developed.
No Member of the Royal Family had been to the Scots College since 1979. This was, we believe, the first official visit by a Royal to the Venerabile. And they are certainly the first Members of The Royal Family ever to visit all three Pontifical Colleges.
No country can, or should try to ignore its history. But we can move forward from it. The Queen’s message made clear that the presence of The Duke of Gloucester at the Martyrs’ Day Feast of the English College – let us not forget, martyrs who died on the scaffold in England for their faith under a charge of treason – “is a sign of the strength of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See”.
The Duke, speaking after the Rector had proposed the Loyal Toast, reminded the seminarians present that they were welcome in Britain after their studies to serve the community, and how we should celebrate the fact that the era of persecution of religion by religion, in the United Kingdom if not everywhere across the world, is at an end.
Like our history, we must never take for granted the protection of fundamental rights and liberties. This week, I shall attend in London a conference on the theme: “Combating intolerance by promoting freedom of religion or belief for all”.
In Rome, the Duke was surprised to find, on a visit to the Papal Basilica of St Paul’s outside the Walls, the motto of the Order of the Garter on the coat of arms of the adjoining Benedictine Abbey. The honour had been the gift of King Henry VIII, the Catholic monarch responsible for the break with the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes, knowing the complexities of our history fortifies our modern effort to stand up for human rights and authentic values today.